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A Futuristic Edge

June 26, 2008
by Kate Huvane
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Brave CIOs are leveraging high-tech robot systems to improve clinician efficiency and patient care.

Dave dillehunt

Dave Dillehunt

Anyone who has visited a healthcare Web site, watched a medical news segment or even picked up a copy of the New York Times in the last month or two has undoubtedly come across a story involving a hospital robot system. Health systems across the country are reaping the benefits of these high-tech devices, which can manage mundane tasks with limited or no supervision and, as a result, free up valuable clinician time.

Forget any of the preconceived notions about robots working in a hospital and let the Star Wars jokes go; robot systems are being leveraged for functions like asset utilization, surgical assistance, transporting of laboratory specimens and supplies, and telemedicine. And what's more, they're becoming more affordable, offering smaller hospitals a chance to compete without breaking the bank. Last but certainly not least, in many facilities, robot systems are being integrated with EMR systems, RFID asset tracking, resource management systems, and pharmacy distributors.

Asset utilization

For Dave Dillehunt, CIO at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, a 385-bed acute care facility in Pinehurst, N.C., the decision to adopt a robot system had less to do with wowing patients and competing with neighboring health systems, and more to do with revamping the hospital's asset utilization process.

Moore Regional implemented the combined Homer/Tug system from Pittsburgh-based Aethon in the summer of 2007. Tug is an automated courier system for the delivery and tracking of supplies, while Homer is an RFID-based asset management solution that locates and recovers hospital equipment. Dillehunt says the two systems working in tandem were able to improve materials utilization by incorporating RFID into the delivery process.

Prior to the implementation, the pharmacy staff at Moore Regional was having trouble allocating medications to the various floors and nursing stations “in a timely, effective and consistent manner,” according to Dillehunt. The Tug was able to address the problem, and soon after its deployment, the IT staff started examining other ways it could leverage the technology. As Dillehunt was considering the possibility of using RFID for asset tracking, Doug Keeney, director of materials management at the facility, was exploring the feasibility of using Tug to replenish materials from the warehouse to the floors and nursing units.

They found the robot system was able to perform both tasks simultaneously.

“At that point,” Dillehunt says, “everything really just came together. We were able to right that train and solve an asset tracking-RFID issue at the same time.”

With the added functionality, the road was now paved for Tug to expand its duties to include the pickup and delivery of lab specimens, a task that has yielded significant time savings for the staff, Dillehunt says.

“The perception within our organization was that in terms of lab specimens, we have volunteers in the hospital that really do all the pick-up of that and carry specimens down to the lab,” says Dillehunt. “The reality, though, was that we actually had high-paid RNs doing that a majority of the time. Having a Tug available for that frees up a significant amount of nursing time.”

And because the robot uses its own broadcasting and receiving capabilities, it keeps the majority of traffic off the data network, says Dillehunt. After the data is collected, a burst is sent through the network to the asset tracking system, and the network bandwidth isn't completely occupied.

Steve garske

Steve Garske

“I didn't have to put in a separate RFID network or give up my bandwidth, and those two things, from a CIO standpoint, are huge,” he says.

Because the robots are being used as delivery or retrieval systems, and none of the data needs to be documented in an EMR, there isn't a need to interface with the EMR system, Dillehunt says. It does, however, interface directly with the hospital's asset tracking system. When the Tugs are making rounds and reading the asset tags, the information is being fed into the system so, at any time, a clinician can access the asset's status online.

Having that Web-based capability has enabled Moore Regional to realize lower costs and increased overall efficiencies, says Dillehunt, who justifies the cost of the technology with the marked reduction that the hospital has seen in the purchasing of IV pumps.

“Without asset tracking, most facilities probably have anywhere from 30-40 percent more devices than they really need,” Dillehunt says.

In terms of improving the workforce, Tugs can work three shifts a day, 365 days a year, and for a significantly lower price than staff employees, Dillehunt says. While robots could never replace clinicians or other healthcare professionals in terms of the care they deliver, he says of the robots, “There is definitely a place for them” in the health system.

And that place — at least at Moore Regional — is constantly expanding. In the near future, he anticipates the Tugs will be further leveraged to pick up and deliver meals and linens in patient rooms.

Surgical assistance

While the Tug actually resembles a robot (or at least what robots looked like on The Jetsons), the da Vinci Surgical System, a robotic-assisted surgery system from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Intuitive Surgical, looks more like the monitors that referees use to review plays during NFL games. But the purpose it serves is far more important, as it combines 3D visualization with precision and control in an interface with surgical capabilities.