Health

Newest Hospital Hire: Humanoid Robot

She meets, she greets, she holds patients' hands and works for 20 hours fully charged

She is helpful, unassuming, taught to be respectful — and she speaks 19 languages. Sound like someone you’d be willing to hire?

Pepper, the newest member on staff at a Belgian hospital, is already making an impact. She is a humanoid robot.

“The reactions are positive for the moment,” said a company executive.

Pepper joined the medical team as a receptionist at Ostend Hospital AZ Damiaan, Reuters reported, as a way to improve “social care” and health care. She introduces visitors to the hospital, provides information they may need, and guides visitors and patients to the correct floors and rooms.

Her creator, the Belgian company Zora Bots, said she will also be able to guide slower patients down the hallway, as she walks at just 1.8 mph. Fully charged, Pepper can work for up to 20 hours on her own.

“The robot itself is a meter 20 [centimeters] high [about 4 feet], so it is not like Arnold Schwarzenegger with a leather jacket and an ‘I will be back’ robot,” said Zora Bots’ co-chief executive, Fabrice Goffin. “It is a quite nice robot and the reactions are positive for the moment.”

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Pepper has stayed mainly on the hospital’s maternity wing so far. Bieke Vandeputte, the mom of a newborn baby, was amazed.

“It is another way of making contact,” she said. “The baby was really sure. He did not mind putting his hands on it. It did not frighten him, so I think it will be important, especially for children.”

Others are far from sure robots are the way to go. They note correctly that there is power in actual human touch and contact.

“Skin hunger” is the name of a new concept in our digital and disconnected world, Dr. Allen Weiss, president and CEO of NCH Healthcare System, wrote in a piece for agingcare.com.

“Our society has grown away from physical intimacy, which is important for good mental and physical health. The laying on of the hands is the physical act of helping the ill and infirm. Touch is therapeutic, and for centuries was as effective as most every other therapy,” Weiss stated.

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While that may be true, a growing number of health care providers apparently believe robots can provide valuable services and better streamline procedures — they are making an investment in them.

The makers of Pepper have another robot that hundreds of health care facilities around the world have already adopted, according to roboticstomorrow.com. Zora is smaller and slower than Pepper and used mainly in physical therapy classes.

Other, less human-like robots are also finding their place. A recent study in the American Journal of Infection Control revealed a 46 percent decrease in surgical-site infections after a Massachusetts hospital used disinfecting robots in its operating rooms.

A new study found a 46 percent decrease in surgical-site infections after a Massachusetts hospital used disinfecting robots in its operating rooms.

Surgeons are using robots — and have been for years. Most often surgeons are still controlling the machines but it may not be long before technology actually allows the robot to be in charge. That’s just the operating room.

Hospitals overall could look very different in the near future.

The University of California San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay has a fleet of 27 robots called Tugs that have been roaming the hallways since February 2015.

“We have seven different departments using them throughout the day every single day and at this point — even though we’ve only been open a year and a half at this complex — I don’t think we can imagine life without them,” said Dan Henroid, director of nutrition and food services.

The robots travel, on average, about 12 miles a day delivering specimens to pathology, surgical tools to the operating room, linens to rooms, medications and meals to patients, and taking out the trash. Tugs operate through the hospital’s wi-fi system and navigate the hallways and elevators through lasers and infrared and ultrasonic sensors.

“As we’re trying to get more cost effective in health care, we’re going to be looking at more things like this to help. It hasn’t cost anyone a job at our place and I don’t know from a personal fulfillment perspective that anyone really wants to be pushing a cart behind the scenes. The robots take some of that less fulfilling work and do it for us,” Henroid told LifeZette.

If that sounds intimidating to you as a patient, prepare yourself — Tug and Pepper may soon be in good company.

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“Beds will be able to move autonomously transporting patients from the emergency room to the operating theatre, via X-ray if needed,” according to a piece in The Conversation. “Many decisions on treatment will be made with the assistance of, or by, intelligent machines. Even your medical information, including medications will be read from a chip under your skin or in your phone. No more waiting for medical records or chasing information when an unconscious patient presents to the emergency room.”

For now, there is time to adjust — and question — all of this and see how it goes. But it may not be long before Pepper is the one guiding you through the answers. For now, cost appears to be a factor. At 30,000 euros (just over $34,000), Pepper comes at a high price — but if she can take on some valuable tasks and patients accept her, she may be an expense hospitals ultimately see as worth it.

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