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Delivery robot poised to create efficiencies, save on operational costs for hospitals

Modeled after a robot from the Star Wars films, Relay offers a potential escape hatch for healthcare pros who'd rather avoid lugging stuff around.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Coming soon to a hospital near you: Robots?

If Savioke and Swisslog have a say in the matter, then yes, robots.

The former, a robotics company, and the latter, a healthcare automation outfit, have teamed together to create a robot they call Relay. Already in use in the hospitality industry, it's been tested in healthcare settings and has shown promise in relieving hospital staff of some of their more menial tasks, such as transporting and delivering medicines and materials.

That in turn enables staff members to focus on the tasks for which they were granted licensure, creating a value proposition that may be difficult for health systems to ignore.

'A REALLY NICE FIT'

While robotics are already used in healthcare settings, this particular machine is more visible in that it actively roams the hospital hallways, coming into contact with patients and staff. To make it more acceptable and less jarring to its human counterparts, the robot was designed to resemble the droids from the Star Wars movies. It even has similar sound effects.

"We spent a lot of time designing Relay so that he had a personality, and he was cute and sweet and not intimidating," said Lauren Schechtman, vice president of marketing and sales for Savioke. "People aren't used to being around robots, and it can be a surprise.

"The most popular robot (from Star Wars) was R2-D2, and we focused on that," Schechtman said. "The sounds are similar."

While R2-D2 was a lovable adventurer, Relay is more practical, delivering materials and handling potentially toxic loads that would be dangerous for a human to transport. It doesn't spit lightsabers from its head, but it does navigate physical environments and refine its digital knowledge continuously, allowing staff to operate more efficiently.

"There are some specific areas where it's a really nice fit," said Raymond Castro, director of solutions management and transport automation for Swisslog. "All of that automation is really focused on being able to allow clinical or patient care staff to focus on those primary tasks instead of delivery and transport."

He called it the next evolution in robotics technology -- one that would have been at home in a galaxy far, far away.

STAND AND DELIVER

"What's interesting about the relay robot is that it's a person-to-person delivery robot that works front-of-house," said Schechtman. "It's one of the only ones that works alone, and with people around in public spaces, like the lobby and corridor of hospitals. It maps out the entire property, and then he can actually go around obstacles and find the best correct route."

It utilizes a bin for transport and has the wherewithal to use elevators autonomously. And it uses the same elevators the public uses because, well, it's kind of cute.

Like much of today's healthcare technology, it utilizes artificial intelligence and machine learning, so the longer it spends inside a property, the more easily it can get around. Everything is completely mapped out, every destination identified. If there's an obstacle in its way, it simply maneuvers around it.

"Even if you go back maybe 10 years, some of that technology requires infrastructure that kept it on a fixed path," said Castro. "So you might be going down a specific hallway, but if the path is blocked the machine will stop and wait for that blockage to clear. Relay is designed to behave much more like a human occupying that space."

USE CASES

Robots have the potential to simultaneously automate mundane and routine tasks and enable skilled employees to focus their energies on the higher-level work they were hired and trained to do.

"So when you think about it in an environment where it's serving pharmacy delivery cases, for example, where you might have a pharmacy tech who was going to make that delivery, now the robot is making that delivery," Castro said. "If you're using pharmacy techs that you're paying $20 an hour, and they're spending some number of hours doing deliveries, there's a very real cost of delivery to that facility. If it's four hours a day or whatever that ends up being, you can replace that with a much lower operational cost."

On a 24/7 basis, the robot runs about $2 or $3 an hour. Not bad compared to what a facility might spend on human labor.

Schechtman said one hospital in particular that's utilizing the technology is delivering chemotherapy materials from a satellite pharmacy about two blocks away from the infusion center. It does this approximately 100 times per day, and the minutes add up.

Skilled labor can use those saved minutes to better realize their mission of providing quality care.

"It's the perfect option," she said. "We're seeing a lot of attention there."

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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