UCSF Medical Center opened its new Mission Bay Campus to patients in early February, welcoming new employees—some of whom are robots.
Twenty-five autonomous Tug robots from Pittsburgh-based Aethon began working at the San Francisco hospital when it opened, delivering instruments and drugs to providers, serving patients meals and hauling wastebaskets, among other tasks that don't involve care-giving.
The hospital is leasing the robots to free staff from performing such basic, nonmedical tasks that would have them repeatedly traversing the three-football-field-long campus, said Brian Herriot, director of operations planning for the Mission Bay campus. The robots also reduce potential workplace injuries from heavy lifting.
The end result of using these relatively low-tech bots: Employees have more time to treat patients or help visitors.
“It is cool tech, but it had to do with determining the most efficient way … of having people working on each end (of the robot) doing more valuable work,” Herriot said. “I think our implementation is unique in that it is centered on that.”
Robots like the Tugs hold the potential to address labor shortage and cost issues, said Charlie Whelan, a senior analyst with Mountain View, Calif.-based Frost and Sullivan who specializes in medical technology. They operate at a fixed cost, don't require benefits and don't need to take breaks as frequently as humans do.
“If it allows hospitals to hire fewer full-time employees and all the costs that go along with them, then great, these things can run 24/7,” Whelan said, noting that the robots hold potential for a good return on investment in the long term.
An Aethon spokesman declined to give a price range for leasing the robots, saying different options cause the costs to vary widely across customers. Bloomberg Business has reported that costs range from $1,200 to $2,000 per robot per month.
For 25 robots, that translates into monthly costs of $30,000 to $50,000, or $360,000 to $600,000 annually. Comparing that to the number of employee hours saved multiplied by average hourly wage and benefit cost can produce a quick and very rough cost/benefit analysis when considering if the robots make financial sense for a facility.
Many of the robots maximize their productivity by alternating jobs, like delivering food by day and hauling soiled linens by night, Herriott noted.
“Our hospital is quick to let you know that something isn't working, but they've kind of accepted these as part of the team,” Herriot said.
To personalize the machines, the hospital will be naming food service robots for various fruits, while others will be named for districts in San Francisco, like Chinatown or Fisherman's Wharf. Using specially designed skins, some robots will look like fruits or cable cars; pediatric patients will be challenged to find a special gold-colored robot.
A growing number of hospitals are using robots for deliveries within large facilities or to conduct telehealth visits.
Nearby El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif., faced similar issues with its new facility that opened in 2009—a low-slung building with a very large footprint.
Its 19 robots now run over 500 hours a week, equivalent to the workweek of 12 full-time employees, said Ken King, the hospital's chief administrative services officer.
“It's just smart practice, I think,” Whelan said. “It's going to be interesting to see what more and more of these things can do.”
Follow Adam Rubenfire on Twitter: @arubenfire