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More hospitals investing in robots to cut costs in the long run

At least 1,000 supply-delivery robots are estimated to be in use in hospitals nationwide, and their numbers are expected to grow.

Susan Morse, Senior Editor

A "Tug" food service robot at Boston Children's Hospital <em>(BCH photo)</em>A "Tug" food service robot at Boston Children's Hospital (BCH photo)

Everybody’s used to doctors and nurses at hospitals, but the newest healthcare staffer is a bit more … robotic.

At the new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay robots assist with surgery. Robots also charm patients and visitors at Boston Children’s Hospital and zap harmful bacteria in Sarasota, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

In fact, robots may even play the part of patients for teaching purposes, like at Kaiser Permanente’s Garfield Innovation Center in Oakland, Calif., where they are simulating childbirth.

[Slideshow: See the robots mentioned in this article]

At least 1,000 supply-delivery robots are estimated to be in use in hospitals nationwide, and their numbers are expected to grow as hospitals face cost and staffing pressures.

Cleveland Clinic, the large nonprofit academic medical center, invested in 81 worker bee robots when it expanded in 2008, according to supply chain executive director Simrit Sandhu.

The investment paid off in two years, she said.

The 81 Automatic Guided Vehicles, or AGVs, cost roughly $100,000 each and have a total $300,000 annual repair and maintenance bill, according to Sandhu and Jeff Jewell, director of warehouse operations at the health system.

Cleveland Clinic did a rough study of the number of people the hospital would have had to employ had it not invested in the AGVs, Sandhu said.

They determined the number was a minimum 120 employees, at an average payroll of $14 to $15 an hour, plus benefits. That’s about $45,000 to $50,000 per person per year, for upwards of $5 million, recurring year after year, Sandhu said.

[Also: Kirk Douglas buys Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles a $2.3 million robot]

Plus, hiring people to push the 800 to 1,000 pounds carried by each AGV was “not necessarily the kind of job we wanted to create for people,” Sandhu said.

“It was roughly over two years on the pay-back,” she said. “The thing that made it work out that way was, all of those user departments were using the same asset.”

Five operational departments count on the AGVs to deliver meals, linens, nursing supplies, FedEx packages, sterile items, oxygen and gases, among other items. They also pick-up trash.

“As we began to grow, we realized we didn’t want a lot of inventory,” she said. “We wanted supplies closer to when we needed them.”

Unlike the colorful “Tugs” at Boston Children’s Hospital – train-like robots that carry cardboard conductor hippos and make a hooting sound as they deliver food to patient rooms – Cleveland Clinic’s AGVs rarely see the light of day.

The robots look like what they have often been called: pallets on wheels. They move 70,000 items daily, up to half-a-mile through a vast underground tunnel system. The tunnels connect the hospitals 15 core buildings, according to Jewell. Cleveland Clinic’s large campus consists of 44 buildings on 168 acres. Trucks continue to move mail and other back-of-the-house supplies to buildings located farther out, he said, but 85 percent of supplies for patient needs are transported by AGV. The tunnels already existed, but were expanded and the AGV service line added at a cost of $10 to $12 million.

The AGVs pick up containers of supplies and food from a central storeroom and adjacent kitchen prep area and bring them to hubs and depots. Human employees pick up the items for delivery to patient rooms and other areas.

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The AGVs run on a grid of magnets, with no central control system, according to Jewell.

The radio frequency identification-controlled AGVs receive orders, from those with access, via Wi-Fi. When not in service, the robots automatically go to a recharging station, he said.

They have a life expectancy of about 10 years, but Jewell believes that a well-serviced vehicle can last longer.

One problem with their use is remembering to leave the path free of obstruction. A maintenance person on a ladder changing a lightbulb would stop the AGV, according to Sandhu.

A chip in the concrete must be repaired as soon as possible so as not to damage the AGVs, Jewell said.

“They are kind of free-roaming, things coming out of the storeroom automatically dispatched. There is no active management, no one sitting at a keyboard. Essentially each person has the ability to give them instructions to perform a task.”

Twitter: @SusanMorseHFN

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