How far away from Hospital 4.0 are we still and what role could robots play here in the future? The coronavirus pandemic has intensified discussion of issues such as digitalization and automation, also in conjunction with the healthcare sector. While there are hospitals that already make use of robotic assistance, Germany is still quite some way from “Healthcare 4.0”.
The future does not exactly look bright for those in need of care: while the number of people requiring care is set to increase due to demographic change, studies indicate that there will be a shortage of at least 400,000 full-time workers by the year 2030, including around 330,000 in the areas of patient and geriatric care.
This is a dilemma for which there is no easy solution. Relief could be provided by new technologies and services that facilitate patient treatment and ease the workload of skilled staff. Dr. Andreas Keibel, Business Development Manager in the Medical Robotics department at KUKA, says: “A change in thinking is already discernible and those responsible are becoming more open to topics such as robotics.”
Automated hospital support systems
Moving patients in intensive care wards, transporting food, distributing medication, sorting blood samples: hospital nursing staff have many tasks that are physically demanding or even risky and in any case take up a lot of time – time that is then not available for those in need of care. Already today, robots are able to perform many of these tasks.
“There is great potential for improving the work of specialist personnel by means of automated systems,” says Keibel. “Particularly when it comes to moving materials, hospitals can adopt technologies that are established in industry. When addressing these issues, it makes sense to start with automation, as it works and does not need to be researched or tested first.”
In Keibel’s opinion, automated guided vehicle (AGV) systems or fully autonomous transport robots could take on many tasks: food containers weighing several hundred kilograms due to integrated heating and cooling functions could easily be transported to the wards, or even directly to the patients’ rooms, by robots.
However, tight budgets, structural constraints and lack of awareness of the very existence of such systems often stand in the way of their deployment. Only a few German hospitals already make use of such automated options. At Jena University Hospital, for example, 24 robots in a specially-constructed tunnel system transport meals to the patients.
KUKA robots sort blood samples in Denmark
Other countries are considerably further in this respect. Alongside the USA and Japan, it is particularly the Nordic countries that are pioneering the automation of hospital processes.
“By comparison, Germany is only mid-table,” says Dr. Wilfried von Eiff of the Center for Hospital Management at the University of Münster. “In Latvia or Estonia, on the other hand, there are scarcely any remaining processes that cannot be digitalized.”
Denmark is also adopting new approaches. Two sorting robots from KUKA were recently put into operation at Aalborg University Hospital. Up to 3,000 blood samples arrive daily in the hospital’s laboratory and have to be tested and sorted.
Using intelligent transport boxes, two KR AGILUS robots now relieve hospital staff of this laborious and strenuous work. The result: staff have more time for analyzing the blood samples, while continuous temperature control in the transport box has reduced potential sources of error.
KUKA is involved in innovative research projects
In order for processes like these to be carried out by robots at all, hospitals need an appropriate infrastructure – and the right mindset. Andreas Keibel and Wilfried von Eiff hope that the coronavirus crisis will have a positive impact in this regard. “Many hospitals have an investment budget, and in the future a higher proportion of this should be invested in innovations,” notes Keibel.
With KUKA, he is actively involved in various research projects and cooperative ventures to drive potential innovations forward. The funded project PeTRA, for example, is investigating the deployment of a robotic care assistant. The idea is for robots to transport patients within the hospital, taking them for X-rays or examination and bringing them back again, for example. By helping patients to walk for themselves or by pushing a wheelchair, the robots could considerably ease the workload of the nursing staff. Keibel says: “Since the start of the year, we have been working together with various different parties to design and develop such a system.”
From nursing robots to automated coronavirus tests
Other systems are already in operation. The Danish company Life Science Robotics, for example, uses the LBR Med from KUKA to support nursing staff with therapeutic measures. In the USA, telepresence robots are enabling remote treatment by physicians, while a disinfection robot from Denmark has been in great demand worldwide since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics (CIIRC) in Prague is using an LBR iiwa to perform COVID-19 tests. This last example, in particular, demonstrates how helpful robots can be in dealing with pandemics – after all, machines are immune to viruses and bacteria.
The hospital of the future
While there are some scattered innovations – be it with robots or other digital possibilities – there remains plenty of potential overall for automation in hospitals. “We are still a long way from Hospital 4.0,” says Wilfried von Eiff. “We are currently somewhere between stage 1 and stage 2. Some hospitals do not even have full Wi-Fi coverage yet.” He expects an increase in the use of cleaning, transport and nursing robots in the coming years.
In the long term, he has a vision for the “patient room of the future”, where the taps clean themselves, for example, and where patients can operate all devices at the press of a button and act independently with the assistance of robots. “This will certainly not be implemented suddenly and all at once. After all, it will cost a lot of money. But we should approach this scenario step by step,” urges von Eiff. Not least, in order to offer the younger generation an attractive workplace, thereby counteracting the shortage of skilled staff in the healthcare sector.