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Collaborative robots: A helping hand in healthcare

By Darrell Adams, head of Southeast Asia and Oceania, Universal Robots

Covid-19, the global pandemic, took the world by surprise and suddenly the healthcare system has to confront one of the toughest challenges on a global scale.

Healthcare workers are working round the clock and the intense workload at the frontline led to exhaustion in many, virus infection in others, and some sadly passed away in their line of duty.

Millions of nurses needed

The global healthcare system is cracking under the strain of this global pandemic. Yet, a recent report shows that globally, we are in need of 6 million more nurses to achieve global health targets, even without a global pandemic. This is an alarming number, and it is unlikely that over a short period of time, the demand can be met.

Human factors and errors

In the study of human factors and fatigue, factors which contribute to human errors within the confines of human factors include sleep deprivation, shift schedules, repetitive tasks, physically demanding tasks, and of course, stress.

In the medical sector, besides the lack of nurses, the healthcare industry faces other challenges such as a high instance of human error due to a pressurising and non-automated environment, working on shifts, with a substantial amount of time dedicated to administrative tasks, which takes away precious time from patient care. All these are contributors to fatigue and stress in nurses.

Assistive technologies and robots

However, there is a silver lining through technological advances. Collaborative robots (cobots), nimble and sophisticated cousins of industrial robots, are venturing into the healthcare industry.

Robots lending a hand during Covid-19 outbreak

During this worrying time of Covid-19 outbreak, the healthcare industry is turning to robots for help. Robots reduce the risk of healthcare workers by minimising in-person contact with patients who are isolated.

In Tsinghua University, one of China’s top universities, researchers designed a cobot to help healthcare staff perform the dangerous task of testing for virus.

Consisting of a robotic arm on wheels, it can take mouth swabs, listen to sounds made by a patient’s organs and perform ultrasounds. These tasks which are normally carried out by doctors in person, can be done by cobots fitted with cameras, to reduce the exposure to potential virus infection by healthcare staff.

Cobots are also helping to combat the spread of Covid-19 in the United States. Detectachem, a Texas-based company, is manufacturing a low-cost Covid-19 test kit that uses a smart phone to analyse the results in 10 to 30 minutes.

Once the Food and Drug Administration approves the kit, DetectaChem will be able to ramp up production to 50,000 kits per day.

In Singapore, a robot called BeamPro delivers medicine and meals to patients diagnosed with Covid-19 or suspected to be infected with the virus, in the isolation wards of Alexandra Hospital.

Universal Robots cobots in healthcare

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the healthcare industry was already deploying UR cobots to help with various tasks. Robots can undertake simple tasks like drawing blood, checking patients’ vital signs and conditions, and taking care of the patients’ hygiene if needed.

Robots can also prepare and dispense medications in pharmacological labs, and even help paraplegics move and administer physical therapy, reducing the workload and physical strain on therapists.

In Denmark, the Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte, has engaged the help of two Universal Robot UR5 collaborative robots (cobots) to optimise the handling and sorting of blood samples for analysis.

The cobots enable the lab to uphold a target of delivering more than 90 percent of results within 1 hour despite a 20 percent increase in samples arriving for analysis.

Also in Denmark, the Patient@Home Project was developed by the Odense University Hospital Neuro-rehabilitation Centre in Ringe with Universal Robots, to assist people rehabilitating from blood clot and stroke-related injuries.

The service cobot is called Rainer and is designed to help patients with repetitive functional movements as part of their rehabilitation process. This technology can support therapists by allowing them to set up specific training programs that the patients can undertake safely with the cobot.

In Singapore, NovaHealth Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic has a physio-massage robot to dole out back and knee massages to patients.

Developed by AiTreat, a start-up incubated by Nanyang Technological University, the robotic masseuse, Emma, short for Expert Manipulative Massage Automation, consists of a robotic arm extending from a machine, that can execute massages through soft silicon tips that are warmed to a temperature of between 38 deg C to 40 deg C to mimic human touch.

The TCM physician prescribes the type of massage after a consultation and the robot calibrates with a camera to accurately target the acupoint. The patient can vary the pressure of massage through a handheld control during the process.

With sensors built in, the robot measures muscle stiffness before and after the massage, which allows the physician to accurately assess the patient’s condition.

In Spain, a vision-guided robotic system called the CBot has been under development. It can apply several types of such physiotherapy automatically.

While the condition of the patient is still diagnosed by a trained physician, the robotic system emulates the role of the physiotherapist, relieving heavily burdened clinics from their workload.

Three robotic arms from Universal Robots were incorporated into this piece of technology so engineers could easily adapt the software to the specific needs of the patient and the required tasks.

The easy programming, installation and collaborative nature of the cobot arms allow surgeons, nurses, theatre staff, and robots to work side-by-side and care for patients.

In addition, robotic medical assistants can monitor patients’ vital statistics and alert nurses when there is a need for human presence, allowing a nurse to monitor multiple patients simultaneously. These assistants also automatically enter information into the patient’s electronic health record.

From factories to the hospitals

Automation has been an indispensable part of the global manufacturing industry for decades now and has fostered remarkable improvements in the efficiency and productivity of the industry.

Robotic technology has evolved over the years to cobots, a more user-friendly version of heavy and large industrial robots in the past, and are now ready to support the healthcare system, giving more time for healthcare workers to do what’s most important; taking care of our loved ones.

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