Growing reach and responsibility
COVID-19 has moved robots out of warehouses and factories and into the spotlight. The rollout of 5G networks along with lower hardware costs to make robot technology will unlock opportunities for all industries to extend their autonomous capabilities outside of contained settings like production facilities—and into the open world. This is especially exciting in healthcare where need has no boundaries and workers are already spread thin. As robotic capabilities extend beyond controlled environments, healthcare organisations will face new challenges around talent investments, data collection, and human-machine interaction and collaboration. Now, the robotics testbed for healthcare consists of the entire world.
The new human + robot care team will look quite different. This blended workforce will require new skills, so organisations must figure out where they find new talent, such as data scientists and product technicians.
The relevance and range of robots
In healthcare as in many industries, robots have typically been tethered to a fixed place. For example, surgical robots used in an operating room or prescription-dispensing robots used in a pharmacy. Now, robots are moving freely through hospital spaces and in the community. It’s a big leap.
The ability for robots to move has become highly important in this era of decided distance. When distance is mandatory to keeping humans safe, robots can help by performing physical tasks, such as delivering supplies and checking temperatures. Robots are even helping to enforce social distancing measures. In the wake of a spike on COVID-19 cases, officials in Singapore piloted use of Boston Dynamics’ robot dog to patrol public areas, broadcasting a pre-recorded reminder about the importance of maintaining physical distance.1
Imposed distance can lead to mental health issues, such as loneliness, among the most vulnerable populations. Robots can help with that, too. Human-size robot “Stevie” has been programmed to lead singalongs, tell stories and call bingo numbers, helping to boost morale and reduce feelings of isolation for those in group care settings in the US and UK.2
A new workforce is emerging
Robots can do things that humans cannot. This is especially important in healthcare where there is a labor shortage—a shortage that has been further exacerbated due to the pandemic. By mid-April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 9,000 healthcare workers in the US alone had tested positive for the virus.3 Healthcare workers that were sick or required to self-isolate couldn’t deliver care when the need for it was at a tipping point.
In times of crisis or calm, robots free up humans to focus on more pressing responsibilities by performing routine tasks, such as taking vital signs and sterilising rooms. In Thailand, engineering students at Chulalongkorn University repurposed “ninja” robots, originally designed to monitor stroke patients, to measure patients’ fevers and help doctors communicate with them remotely.4 And in Shenzhen, a startup called YouIbot built an antivirus robot in just two weeks. It has six ultraviolet bars that can sanitise surfaces, and an infrared camera to scan for fevers among patients and the public.5 Denmark’s UVD Robots take just 10 minutes to disinfect hospital rooms, killing 99.9% of bacteria thereby reducing the amount of hospital-acquired infections. It’s not about pulling away work from humans. It’s about alleviating the burden and allowing people to focus on where they can add the most value.
The new human + robot care team will look quite different. This blended workforce will require new skills, so organisations must figure out where they find new talent, such as data scientists and product technicians, as well as start with retraining new skills to existing talent.
Remove the fear factor
While having more helping hands is a benefit, healthcare organisations must be careful of how they roll out and integrate robots in the workforce. Robots must be deployed in a way that supports trust. Building trust may differ among cultures, so it’s important to understand what the human needs and attitudes are, and then design services with these factors in mind. Adjusting to cultural attitudes and beliefs will help to ensure robots are accepted, not rejected.
Developers of robots should consider how to make them “cool” over “creepy.” MIT developed the Huggable ™ robotic companion to help provide therapeutic benefits to children and other patients. It looks like a teddy bear and is more adorable than alarming.6 In contrast, researchers at Osaka University developed robot child Affetto.7 The robot’s android face moves and expresses emotion in a very realistic manner. Robot developers must consider the pros and cons of humanistic robots. What is the role of a human appearance and will it help or hinder adoption?
Robot runners help during the crisis
The Mayo Clinic in Florida is using autonomous vehicles to safely transport medical supplies and COVID-19 tests that are collected via drive-thru testing locations. Mayo Clinic Florida’s CEO Dr. Kent Thielen said, "Using artificial intelligence enables us to protect staff from exposure to this contagious virus by using cutting-edge autonomous vehicle technology and frees up staff time that can be dedicated to direct treatment and care for patients.”8
What can healthcare leaders do next?