OPINION: Robots perform tasks too high-risk for people
Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town recently reported that, since the middle of March, specialists are using robots in the intensive care units (ICUs) to protect the healthcare workers from being infected by Covid-19.
The two robots, called Quintin and Salma, originated from the high-tech Sunskill simulated operating theatre and virtual ward training facility of Stellenbosch University (www.sunskill.co.za), where the robots enable international specialists to train students remotely.
The robots are manufactured by a start-up company called Double Robotics and resemble a Segway Personal Transporter. They have large wheels to move around and long adjustable poles with an iPad or screen on top. They function as a person’s double or telepresence robot that drives you around, interacts with people and attends meetings remotely.
The latest Double Robotics 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 allow users to pan and zoom and can read papers on a desk. It has six microphones and an amplified speaker to enable proper communication.
The robots at Tygerberg Hospital are used by the specialists to do virtual rounds in the restricted ICU wards where highly infectious Covid-19 patients are treated. They 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 blood work 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 are so highly specialised, such as the respiratory specialist, that if they contract the virus, the whole service to Covid-19 patients will be affected.
Employing robots is particularly 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 positively to the robots, 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.
Robots are not limited to 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.
At work and home, people are using robots in creative ways during the 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 about R74000.
Robots have been used in healthcare for quite some time, but hopefully Covid-19 will accelerate the adoption of robots, particularly to automate the extremely tedious and slow process of Covid-19 testing to eliminate the delays and huge backlog 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-19 crisis 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.
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 particularly if that person is your doctor.
Professor Louis CH Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist.