Hospitals are facing a multitude of issues that predominantly stem from logistical and organizational complexities.
These hurdles impede the efficient delivery of healthcare services across many hospital departments. Recent breakthrough technology in robotic manipulation, robotic navigation, computer vision and natural language understanding presents a tremendous opportunity to address and overcome the existing problems and to transform hospital departments into more efficient and highly coordinated teams of human workers and robotic automation. In this article, we will present a futuristic yet attainable robotic workflow encompassing various departments within the hospital and demonstrate how robots can eliminate logistical and organizational inefficiencies and free up healthcare staff from repetitive and trivial manual tasks.
Hospital pharmacies for example, which are one of the most critical departments in a hospital’s supply chain, are suffering under a severe technician shortage that is often exacerbated by operational inefficiencies. In a comprehensive hospital study, researchers found that “the average vacancy rate for inpatient FTE pharmacy technician positions is 22.2%” in 2021. The pharmacy technician shortage is so severe that “nearly all health-system pharmacy administrators reported increasing the use of overtime to fill shifts (97%), and nearly 9 out of 10 (89%) reported using pharmacists to fill pharmacy technician shifts or perform technician activities”.
Pharmacy technicians' role is to alleviate pharmacists’ workloads by taking over duties that mainly revolve around inventory management, medication preparation and restocking.
The pharmacy technician shortage hinders the pharmacists from effectively optimizing operations in their department, and can result in compromised attention to critical medication management tasks. For example, delays in the delivery of stat medications can have fatal consequences. Delay in medication administration can also lengthen patient recovery times, prolong admission, and can lead to avoidable patient harm and suffering.
Supply chain technicians shortage
Similarly to pharmacy technicians, hospitals are facing dire shortages of supply chain technicians. Emancro has conducted extensive research interviewing nurses and supply chain managers from more than 15 different medical centers across the US and found that the shortage of supply chain technicians in hospitals is causing significant disruptions in the availability of medical items on the units, both comprising patient care and exacerbating stress on nurses. Nurses spend up to 20% of the time on non-value-adding tasks, such as making calls to the supply chain department. Recent research highlights the physical toll these inefficiencies take on nurses, revealing that a 12-hour day shift will require a nurse to walk about 5 miles, and much of this distance is traveled for the sake of retrieving medication or supplies. Finding an effective solution to streamline the supply chain and enhance logistical processes is crucial to alleviate this burden and empower nurses to focus on what truly matters—their patients' health and comfort.
To solve these issues
Emancro is introducing world’s first “all in one, one-for-all robot” which is designed to perform a wide variety of tasks from distributing and managing medication, medical supplies, and in the near future, serving food, distributing linen and performing many more tasks (as illustrated in Figure 1). Not only can this solve the technician crisis, but it also provides many other advantages, as will be highlighted below.
In the hospital pharmacy for example, robots can restock medication cabinets, and recount controlled substances, which currently takes human technicians approximately 260h of work per week in a 400-bed, mid-size hospital. Medication cabinets are scattered over more than 100 locations in hospitals and restocking them takes a substantial amount of labor.
In addition to restocking medication cabinets, robots can securely hand over requested medication and supplies to nurses, increasing efficiency even more. Robots provide a higher level of safety when performing critical tasks such as restocking medication trays, such as anesthesia trays, where a missing item can have fatal consequences for patients, by combining AI-based computer vision and RFID scanning.
With autonomous robots, hospitals can also dramatically cut down their medication waste, which accounts for up to 3% of their annual inventory (of $15 million average), or around $440 thousand dollars per year for a 400 bed hospital, by automatically tracking expiration dates and analyzing medication usage data, robots can relocate close-to-expiry medications to high utilization areas. Altogether, Emancro estimates that a fleet of robots could generate around $4 million of value, for a hospital’s pharmacy alone.
Similarly, the same “all in one, one for all robots” are able to perform the pick-up and drop-off tasks for the supply department, as demonstrated in Figure 2. In the hospital, supply chain technicians need to constantly monitor the inventory levels for each floor and restock items when they run out, often on an hourly basis. Technicians are constantly on standby and waiting for calls from hospital staff to fill low levels of inventory. Much of this stressful and manual work can be automated using the same universal logistics robot. Using AI-powered computer vision, the robots will periodically check inventory levels in all supply rooms on all floors, and restock items if necessary.
Supplies tracking convenience
By addressing logistical challenges using robots, nurses will no longer need to track down medication and supplies themselves. Figure 3 shows the overall workflow of how patient-specific supply items can be requested and delivered by the robot. A Nurse can order items either through a computer-based web-interface, a smart-phone app, or via a voice assistant. Within minutes, robots will deliver the requested items, either handing them directly to the nurse or dropping off the items at a designated location. Besides on-demand ordering, nurses can also schedule routine delivery for each patient through electronic health records, saving nurses significant amounts of time.
In the future, the same robot system will be able to automate a variety of tasks in the sterile processing department, for example assembling surgical instruments kits for upcoming surgeries. In the dietary department the robots could help assemble meal trays, or serve food directly to patients and in the laundry department, robots can collect soiled and biohazardous linens and bring them to a central location for cleaning.
Unlike other mobile robots on the market that require hospitals to drastically retrofit their infrastructure, Emancro’s mobile robots seamlessly integrate with existing infrastructure: For example, while traditional mobile robots require costly elevator integrations, Emancro robots can simply press elevator buttons. The only essential requirements for operating Emancro robots are a stable Wi-Fi network, and charging stations, which can be conveniently designated within the hospital premises. Since Emancro’s robotic system can be scaled from only a robot to a fleet of dozens of robots, and requires very little up-front investment, it is far more friendly to small to medium sized hospitals. Getting started with Emancro robots is simple, robots can be configured via a user-friendly WebApp and a smartphone App.
The implementation of robotics solutions in hospitals represents a significant opportunity to address the challenges currently faced by the healthcare industry. By leveraging the capabilities of fully autonomous robotic systems, hospitals can overcome the shortage of qualified pharmacy technicians, supply chain technicians, sterile processing technicians as well as many other critical clinical support roles. In addition, the robotic system will provide a large boost for labor safety, improve the organization’s efficiency and resilience, enhance patient safety and the overall quality of patient care, which in the end is the most important.