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Providence Hospital Goes Robotic

June 12, 2007
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Six months since embracing robots to deliver medication and supplies, Providence Hospital has seen futuristic results.

by Michelle Grey

Late last year, Providence Hospital, Washington, D.C., implemented six high-tech "employees" to expedite deliveries in its materials management, pharmacy, lab, and dietary departments. Prior to installing TUG, a robotic transporting system developed by Pittsburg-based Aethon, the hospital employed human messengers to carry out both non-emergency and STAT (urgent) deliveries.

According to Mark Todd, director of materials management at Providence, "Staff began manipulating the service because they didn't want to make non-urgent deliveries themselves." However, Todd became concerned that messengers were still being tied up making those routine deliveries, leaving them unable to attend to "emergency" situations.

After seeing TUG demonstrated at an industry conference, Todd was convinced the robots could alleviate some of Providence's delivery concerns. "Robots don't take breaks, demand vacations, or flirt in the hallway," explains Todd, "in the end, what sold me was realizing how inefficient we humans are."

According to Aldo Zini, president and CEO of Aethon, installation of a TUG is relatively easy.

"Other systems have to install expensive infrastructures such as Wi-Fi or active RFID networks, but because we have no tracks, wiring, or networks, it's a straightforward process," he explains.

However, the road to a seamless delivery system was not as smooth as Todd had anticipated. "To begin with, it sounded like there wasn't a whole lot of IT involved, but I was somewhat mistaken." Prior to implementation, Providence had not yet installed a wireless network, a necessary component for TUG's functionality. "In one sense, TUG gave the hospital the push it needed to go wireless, but it wasn't necessarily the easiest process."

Another caveat that arose was Providence's "archaic" elevator system. "What's neat is that a TUG can call the elevator, but the elevator will only respond once it's empty, so it doesn't interrupt the flow of service," explains Todd, "but unfortunately our elevators weren't technologically advanced enough to actually receive calls from the TUG, and our elevator people were slow to implement the necessary technology."

However, "the nice part about TUG is that it just works. It does what it's told, and doesn't complain," says Todd. Another important benefit of implementing TUGs is that "it puts the responsibility back on the person asking for the service," Todd says. Healthcare staff can no longer blame the messenger for losing or delivering the wrong item, they can only blame themselves.

Todd contends that TUG has yet to incur any major technical errors. A series of sensors detects obstacles (such as beds, water fountains, or people) in TUG's path, and a screen displays a map of its location during deliveries, he explains. Aethon comes out and makes a schematic map of the hospital, and maps out a wireless route for the TUG, "so it knows where it's going," Todd says.

Zini maintains that Aethon has performed hundreds of thousands of deliveries and never had an incident where something was broken or a staff member was hurt. Other than getting stuck in the hallway during a change of shift, TUG has proven to be "remarkably accurate and methodical," Todd says.

Maintenance of TUGs has been a "snap," Todd says.

According to Zini, "These robots are workhorses, with a hauling power up to 500 pounds, and they rarely have any technical glitches. However, if there is a problem with one of the TUGs, Aethon provides a 24/7 help desk that constantly monitors each TUG. If there is a problem, the robot will call the desk directly and it can be fixed remotely."

Although the practical benefits of TUG are apparent, the financial advantages are more difficult to determine. Todd maintains that even though the TUGs does the job of "4.2 people," he didn't have to fire anyone, so there were no obvious savings in the human resource department. As far as ROI, Todd says he isn't quite sure of the numbers, but is absolutely certain "the technology is successful because it works." However, Zini contends that in every study conducted by Aethon, hospitals that have installed TUG have shown a ROI that is in the 30 to 50 percent range.

When asked about what advice Todd would give to other institutions thinking about implementing TUG, he says, "Make sure you map out the flow of where you want TUG to go before it arrives, but be flexible enough to modify it. Also, be in discussion with your elevator and IT department early, if I could do it over I wouldn't have skipped that part in the planning process."

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