It's becoming more common, for example, to see Tugs, made by Pittsburgh-based Aethon, humming around U.S. hospitals, using elevators to move floor to floor as they haul drugs, linens and lab results. They replace the role of runners previously responsible for such deliveries. Denver-based Swisslog Healthcare Solutions-North America's RoboCouriers carry out many of the same tasks.
“No hospital wants to cut corners for the sake of automation or for the sake of technology,” said Charlie Whelan, senior analyst in Frost and Sullivan's healthcare group. “At the same time, they are looking for ways to make things easier and cheaper.”
The robots that have joined the U.S. hospital workforce tend to fall into two categories: ones that replace a job previously handled by an employee, such as packaging drugs or delivering lab results, and telemedicine-based technologies that connect clinicians and patients in ways that previously didn't exist.
Adoption has generally been limited to academic medical centers, which are more likely to have the scale, budget and operational mobility to invest in the technology.
Robot manufacturers and some providers say that broad efforts to improve clinical quality and reduce costs may boost utilization of these robots over the next few years and could spur new development of more innovative tools that will help hospitals become further automated.
GE Global Research announced this year that it will work with the Veterans Affairs Department to develop an intelligent system that will sort, sterilize and track surgical tools. The system is expected to be tested at a VA hospital in 2015.
“We're uniquely positioned to construct a smart solution that can make operating rooms run more efficiently, save millions of dollars in healthcare costs and lead to better patient outcomes,” Lynn DeRose, principal investigator and auto-ID technology expert in GE Global Research's distributed intelligent systems lab, said in a news release.
The promise of better outcomes, including reductions in medication errors, has triggered interest in pharmacy automation robots, such as Intelligent Hospital System's RIVA and McKesson Corp.'s Robot-Rx. The robots take on tasks such as breaking down drugs into unit-of-use doses or expiration dating. Like the delivery robots, they, too, can reduce labor costs.