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Healthcare’s Next Frontline Workers

Ethan Fletcher headshot
Ethan Fletcher / Dec 14, 2020
The healthcare industry has quickly moved to new AI and robotic solutions to keep patients and workers safer.

Robotic answers to the challenges facing the healthcare industry are not new. In 2017’s The Future of Medicine, our team investigated how robotics and automation were being utilized in the space. Also, since early 2015, we have tracked the Forces of Change driving the ever quickening rate at which automated solutions are being utilized in the healthcare, sports, commerce and food spaces. In early 2020, a new force of change began impacting nearly every aspect of global life, a force we did not identify back in 2015 but did come close to predicting in 2017: the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March of 2020, as a result of public health guidelines put in place to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, we saw unprecedented layoffs and furloughs along with unemployment claims in the millions. At one point in May, nearly 15% of Americans were out of work — a level not seen since the Great Depression. The global healthcare industry was one of many forced to adapt to this new normal. For an industry so reliant on in-person interactions, this near instantaneous shift toward a dependency on the exact opposite approach to care was predictably difficult. While some businesses have been able to put up plexiglass barriers between line workers and began requiring mask-wearing in break rooms, a number of hospitals, doctors offices and other medical facilities needed more advanced solutions and turned their attention towards a number of emergent technologies. From medical robots handling nursing duties, to telemedicine, drone deliveries and social chatbots helping patients deal with their mental health, robots are proliferating in the healthcare industry.

The Robots are Here

Robot assistants like Diligent Robotics’s Moxi, which is currently being trialed in a number of hospitals in the U.S. and recently began a pilot program in Texas, have played a growing role in medical communities’ responses to the pandemic. With a global shortage of nurses predating the pandemic, the AI-powered autonomous robot, designed specifically to free up time for nurses, has become an invaluable addition to many healthcare facilities. According to Diligent Robotics, Moxi was designed to take over a number of non-patient-facing tasks that have historically been relegated to nurses or orderlies in order to allow the humans to spend more time on complex tasks like patient care. Currently, nurses can spend up to 1/3 of their time at work searching for and retrieving medical supplies instead of providing care. It’s easy to see why, during the COVID-19 crisis, robots like Moxi may be introduced into stressed facilities at much higher rates.

Moxi from Diligent Robotics delivers medical supplies to a patient’s room.

Robots like UVD Robots’s new programmable UV Disinfection Robots are also being deployed to facilities across the globe to cleanse rooms of pathogens using ultraviolet light. All a human staff member needs to do is tell the bot where to go. It will traverse a facility’s hallways, opening and operating elevators and once a security checklist is completed, disinfect the room in about 10 minutes. Use of these UV cleaning bots isn’t isolated to hospitals and medical facilities either.

In high-density cities like Manhattan, mass-transit commuters face high levels of infection risk. In March, Hong Kong deployed robots to help disinfect their MTR. Heathrow Airport also recently announced the introduction of UV cleaning robots to fight COVID-19 and in early October, the Carolina Panthers began using robots to disinfect parts of Bank of America Stadium. In just a few short months these bots have gone from novelty to necessity for highly trafficked spaces globally. The future sanitation of public spaces might soon be handled almost entirely by robots.

While Moxi and its peers help to refocus nurses’ duties in medical facilities and bring medical-grade sanitation to transit systems, an army of other bots are working to keep patients safe at home.

According to a British report from 2018, 9 million Britons, or about 14% of the population, suffered from loneliness that year. This number was unsurprisingly higher within more vulnerable groups, like older citizens and those with disabilities, many of the same groups that have been identified as facing a higher risk of experiencing serious COVID-19 complications. Social distancing / isolation is one of the best options these people have to avoid COVID-19 and the complications that could come with it. As a result, they are the beneficiaries of new efforts across the globe to combat negative mental health effects brought on by social isolation with technology.

Pepper, from Softbank Robotics is, according to the company’s website: “…the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions.” Pepper was part of a recent program in the U.K. and Japan that studied what effect the robot’s interactions with the elderly had on their mental health. The study found a small but positive change in perceived loneliness among its participants.

Pepper the robotic assistant on duty

Pepper, from SoftBank Robotics is “the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions” on duty

There are also a number of more accessible options for the elderly and those with disabilities on the horizon with studies being conducted on chatbots’ effectiveness on improving mental health and robots being used to improve the mental health of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Mexico.

These studies and the wider acceptance of chatbot-based therapy, go hand in hand with the explosion of mental health apps . Soon AI-powered applications will aid in the full range mental healthcare of all patients in need.

What does the future hold?

The Coronavirus pandemic has hastened two important components of any new technology moving past early adaptors and to the general public: acceptance and proliferation / access. Patients and providers are more open to robots becoming a part of their workplaces and public spaces out of necessity. Companies providing and utilizing robotic and AI-powered solutions are also more common than in a pre-pandemic world. All of this creates an ecosystem in which the upward trajectory of robotics in public health and medical environments looks to outlast the pandemic. The government, VCs and businesses are also investing millions of dollars into companies working on advancing and expanding the use of these automated technologies.

By 2030, robots working in medical facilities will be responsible for far more than COVID specific physician aid. Their duties will expand to all non-patient tasks currently handled by orderlies or nurses, delivering equipment, lab specimens, supplies, meals, linens and more freeing up nurses to spend more time with their patients. Some basic medical tasks like taking / testing blood and administering certain viral / bacterial tests could be fully automated as well.

Mental health monitoring and aid will be at least semi-automated for certain patients with chatbots and socially sentient robots becoming smarter and more culturally accepted in the west. A combination of physician / developer input, monitoring and machine learning will allow them to tailor their behavior to individual patients.

Disinfection bots will likely become an even more common sight also. Their success in hospitals, airports and subways has already led to their introduction into other highly trafficked buildings. Post-pandemic, they will be a presence in museums, more sports stadiums, retail locations, fulfillment centers, warehouses, government buildings and other high density spaces.