Automated couriers free nurses from routine tasks
The HelpMate robots, made by the San Diego-based Pyxis Corp., can cart around hospital items, such as food trays, pharmaceuticals, lab specimens, X-rays, bandages and blankets. They save nurses trips to cafeterias, pharmacies and central supply areas, saving hospitals the costs of human couriers.
Years ago, when the pediatric nurses at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut needed a treat for a sick child, they’d have to wait half an hour for a cafeteria runner or leave the unit to get it themselves.
No longer, thanks to a pair of robots named Rosie and Roscoe. Either one will cruise up in a mere five or 10 minutes and make the young patients smile, along with giving them a piece of fruit, said Debbie Henriques, RN.
“Now, if one child wants an orange, they can just send the robot to bring it up,” she said. “The children truly enjoy the robot. They wait for it to come down the hall.”
Rosie and Roscoe are HelpMate robots, 4-foot-6 droids that perform a variety of courier duties for more than 70 hospitals nationwide. The R2-D2-like robots, made by the San Diego-based Pyxis Corp., can save nurses trips to cafeterias, pharmacies and central supply areas, so they save hospitals the costs of human couriers and bring a bit of humor to the workplace.
At the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, for example, robots “Elvis,” “Lisa Marie” and “Madonna” get gussied up for holidays.
“Valentine’s Day is coming,” said Clifton Louie, Ph.D., associate director for clinical services at the UCSF Medical Center. “Pretty soon, Elvis is going to have a big heart on him.”
The HelpMate has quite a pedigree. It’s the brainchild of Joe Engelberger, long regarded as the Father of Robotics. In 1961, Engelberger founded Unimation, the firm that first put robots into a General Motors plant and is considered the first industrial robotics company. Engelberger developed the HelpMate about a decade ago and, in 1999, sold the line of service robots to Pyxis.
Although the HelpMate wasn’t born yesterday, it’s still on the cutting edge when it comes to robotic technology. Rosie, Roscoe, Elvis and crew navigate around crowded hospital corridors using a combination of sonar, infrared strobe lights and software designed to prevent collisions with people and other obstacles. They even take elevators on their own.
This flexibility is in contrast to other robots that make their way around workplaces, following specific paths via wires or ultraviolet paint on the floor. If for some reason the HelpMate makes the mistake of hitting an object, a safety mechanism in its bumper can bring it to a stop, said Brian Babbitt, general manager of the HelpMate product.
HelpMate can cart around a variety of hospital items, such as food trays, pharmaceuticals, lab specimens, X-rays, bandages and blankets. The machine will show up at a nursing station, announce which of its compartments has the item or items ordered, and then wait for someone to hit a green light so that it can take off for its next destination.
“The ‘bot’ is perfect for hospitals dealing with a staffing shortage,” Babbitt said. He estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of courier runs are performed by people other than designated human couriers, meaning that medical personnel such as nurses are wasting a good chunk of time on errands.
“From a nursing perspective, the more time they can spend with the patient, the better,” Babbitt said. “HelpMate allows them to do that.”
Typically, hospitals rent a HelpMate machine from Pyxis, which is a subsidiary of a health care products firm, Cardinal Health, based in Ohio. The price is less than $5 an hour during the course of a five-year contract, Babbitt said.
The price is right for hospitals, said Manuel Rosetti, Ph.D., an assistant professor of industrial engineering at the University of Arkansas. In 1998, Rosetti conducted a cost-effectiveness study of a fleet of six HelpMates used at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center. He concluded that the robots could replace a team of 15 human couriers and pay for themselves in less than 2½ years.
What’s more, Rosetti said, the machines may give nurses and hospitals more timely service.
“Robots don’t pause; they don’t chat,” he said. “They always go at the same pace. They don’t take breaks.”
Even so, the robots aren’t perfectly efficient in practice. Just ask the pharmacy department at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center. When they first began using a HelpMate about six years ago, the pharmacy staff nicknamed the robot “Darn Thing,” or “D.T.” for short. That’s because the robot wouldn’t make it back to the pharmacy on schedule.
“We spent a lot of time hunting it down,” recalled Rhonda Stephens, CPhT, administrative specialist at the pharmacy.
But Stephens is quick to add that D.T. wasn’t really to blame. The robot would wind up deactivated in some hallway because people curious about it would hit the wrong button.
“It was such a novelty that people couldn’t resist playing with it,” she said.
Now, D.T. rolling down a corridor is a familiar sight at the UCSD Medical Center, just like Elvis and his pals are. UCSF has been a HelpMate customer for about seven years. The robots are generally reliable and a hit with the public, but they don’t completely keep nurses from becoming part-time couriers, said Erika Zappe, RN.
“Sometimes you need something really quickly, and you have to go down to the pharmacy,” said Zappe, who manages patient care in the telemetry unit.
Pyxis is working on ways to give nurses even more time with patients, Babbitt said. One possibility is an upgraded HelpMate that would unload itself; another is to integrate the HelpMate with other Pyxis products. The company also makes a drug-dispensing device and a bedside station that allows clinicians to access patient records.
Pyxis’ effort is part of a broader trend in health care robotics in which researchers and companies are developing machines to assist clinical personnel and eliminate human errands. These include a robotic surgery system and machines that run blood tests at patient bedsides and zap the data to be assessed by a clinician, Rosetti said.
“Automation and robotics will free nurses to do the things they should be doing,” Rosetti said.
Robot enthusiasts see even more dramatic possibilities for smart machines. With ever-faster computer-chip brains, robots that think like humans and claim to be conscious may be built by 2030, author and futurist Ray Kurzweil said.
The prospect of Elvis’ heirs nudging nurses and doctors out of the units doesn’t sit well with Zappe. She believes nurses play a crucial role as advocates for patients, and doesn’t want to see that disappear.
“You always fear having too many robots taking away the personal care of health care,” she said.
Henriques isn’t too worried that will happen. She doubts a machine will ever be able to handle such tasks as assessing patients, talking with them and providing compassion and empathy.
“There is nothing that is going to replace bedside nursing,” she said. “That kind of hands-on contact can’t be replaced by a robot.”