Tygerberg Hospital in the Cape Town Metro recently reported that since the middle of March specialists are using robots in the intensive care units (ICU) to protect the healthcare workers from getting infected by the Covid-19 virus, says Professor Louis Fourie,  a futurist and technology strategist. Photo: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA).
Tygerberg Hospital in the Cape Town Metro recently reported that since the middle of March specialists are using robots in the intensive care units (ICU) to protect the healthcare workers from getting infected by the Covid-19 virus, says Professor Louis Fourie, a futurist and technology strategist. Photo: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA).

Tech News: The crucial role of robots during Covid-19

By Louis Fourie Time of article published May 15, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - There is no doubt that during the fight against Covid-19, healthcare workers are at the frontline and thus extremely vulnerable. 


Recently, a whole family, which I happen to know, was infected through a family member working at one of the Covid-19 hospitals. 

Despite several precautions, healthcare workers and their families are at the highest risk of getting infected with Covid-19. And in the daily news we often receive reports of frontline healthcare workers, doctors and nurses who sacrificed themselves and died because of Covid-19.

This extremely high risk to healthcare workers make the use of robots during a pandemic so much more viable. Tygerberg Hospital in the Cape Town Metro recently reported that since the middle of March specialists are using robots in the intensive care units (ICU) to protect the healthcare workers from getting infected by the Covid-19 virus.

The two robots, named Quintin and Salma, originated from the state-of-the-art high-tech Sunskill simulated operating theatre and virtual ward training facility of Stellenbosch University (www.sunskill.co.za), where the robots are used as training tools to allow international specialists to train students remotely. 

The robots are manufactured by a start-up company called Double Robotics (www.doublerobotics.com) and resembles a Segway Personal Transporter. It has large wheels to move around and a long adjustable pole with an iPad or screen on top and was manufactured to function as a person’s double or telepresence robot that drives you around, interact with people and attend meetings remotely. 

The newest Double 3 robot has mixed reality video to make navigation easier and includes an array of 3D sensors to allow for self-driving.

Two 13-megapixel cameras let users pan and zoom and can even read papers on a desk. It has six microphones and an amplified speaker to enable proper communication.

The Double Robotics robots in Tygerberg Hospital are used by the specialists to do virtual rounds in the restricted ICU wards where the highly infectious Covid-19 patients are being treated. 

The robots have a built-in microphone and zoom function to enable communication between the patient and doctor and simultaneously relay the vital signs of the Covid-19 patients such as blood pressure, pulse, electrocardiogram, and oxygen saturation in the blood. 

The robots can also review the measurements and settings on the ventilator since patients’ health status is dynamic and the settings need to be adjusted regularly for optimum treatment such as when new lab results for bloodwork are received indicating the carbon dioxide, oxygen and acid base level of the blood.

The benefit of the robots is that nursing staff, doctors, physiotherapists and other ancillary staff do not have to fully kit up and to personally walk into the very high-risk ventilated areas.

This makes more frequent visits at low risk much more possible and, therefore, protects critical staff members from contracting the virus. Some of the staff members is so highly specialised, such as the respiratory specialist, that if they contract the virus, the whole service to Covid-19 patients will be affected.

The use of the robots is especially useful in the case of patients that are awake and on supplementary oxygen, since these patients are a much higher risk. Patients who are awake regularly cough and thus distribute the virus. 

The Double robots help the doctor to have a remote conversation with the patient while displaying the face of the doctor on the screen. 

According to the specialists at Tygerberg Hospital the patients reacted very positive, although some of them were somewhat surprised.

Since the robots are remotely operated, the specialist can control them from home via a laptop, tablet or smartphone in the case of an emergency or from isolation if they have contracted Covid-19. 

But robots in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic are not limited to the ICU but are used in almost every aspect of managing the crisis. They are, for instance, used to take blood samples, perform mouth swabs, disinfect hospitals with ultraviolet lights, and bring food to people in quarantine. Even quadcopter drones are used to transport test samples to laboratories and to monitor people who are violating the social distancing restrictions.

Research done by the Centre for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University indicated five major categories of use:

• Public safety, public works and non-clinical public health: Quarantine enforcement, disinfecting public spaces, and identification of infected persons through drones with thermal imagery.
• Clinical care: Disinfecting the point of care, healthcare worker telepresence, prescription/meal dispensing, and patient intake.
• Work, critical infrastructure, and quality of life: Delivery, socializing, tele-commerce, robot assistants, and protection of critical infrastructure.
• Laboratory and supply chain automation: Delivery, transporting infectious samples to laboratories for testing, manufacturing or decontamination of personal protective equipment, and laboratory automation.
• Non-hospital care: Delivery to quarantined persons, quarantine or nursing home socializing, off-site testing, testing and care in nursing homes.

At work and home people are using robots in creative ways during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Property agents are using remotely operated robots to show properties from the safety of their homes. Graduation is always a special occasion that nobody wants to miss. In Japan, students used robots to walk the stage to receive their degrees and diplomas. In Cyprus, a person used a drone to take his dog for a walk without transgressing any stay-at-home regulation.

Robots can be a game changer during a pandemic. Fortunately, the cost of robots is decreasing, which should make the use of robots more ubiquitous. The Double Robotics new 

Double 3 robot (a later model of the one used by Tygerberg Hospital), for example, costs around R74 000.

Robots have been used in healthcare for quite some time, but hopefully Covid-19will accelerate the adoption of robots, especially to automate the extremely tedious and slow process of Covid-19 testing to eliminate the delays and huge backlog currently being experienced in South Africa. 

Telepresence robots, such as those used by Tygerberg Hospital, are still a niche product, but it seems as if telemedicine has found traction during the Covid-19crisis and will probably change how we do things in the future to decrease the risk with regard to healthcare staff. We will probably continue using robots in restricted ICUs in the foreseeable future.

But, however useful robots might be during the Covid-19 disaster, one thing we learned during the past few months is that robots do not replace people but perform tasks that are too high risk for people or tasks that free the hands of people to handle the increased workload. 

Some robots are indeed autonomous such as the decontamination robots and meal and prescription carts, but they help hospital staff to cope during the crisis. Empathy and physical presence of a real person will always remain paramount especially with regard to patients that are awake and need personal comforting and especially if that person is your doctor.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist, [email protected]

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