Arab Health 2024: Service robots set to play bigger role in hospital care

Multipurpose droids can take on the role of three human employees in hospital wards

A robot does the rounds on the first day of Arab Health at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Pawan Singh / The National
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A multipurpose hospital service robot unveiled on the opening day of Arab Health in Dubai is designed to reduce labour intensive duties in wards, allowing staff to improve patient care.

Hospitals are turning towards wider use of automation and service robots, as human workers focus their skills elsewhere.

From delivering meals to wards to maximise recovery times, to ensuring patients receive the right medication – robots are beginning to do more than assist surgeons during precision procedures.

Although a dystopian vision of an entire hospital run by robots may not become reality, technology is being fast-tracked into care settings around the world to make clinics more efficient to run.

At about $70,000, the Camello+ robot built by Singapore technology company OTSAW is breaking into the healthcare industry, by replacing the manpower of three full-time employees.

With its interchangeable modular attachments, the robot can deliver drugs, on-demand meals, laundry and surgical tools, as well as dispose of medical waste.

Similar robots are already in use across several sectors, such as logistics and hospitality, but health care presents a unique set of challenges.

Game changer

The Camello+ can run on a battery life of up to eight hours, with OTSAW founder and chief executive Ling Ting Ming aiming to sell 1,000 of the labour-saving robots to hospitals around the world in 2024.

“Health care is a very different landscape,” said Mr Ling. “First of all, the software must be proven in a huge hospital, how they use it in the operations, because delivering food in the hospital is mission critical.

“Imagine you have 800 beds, and 800 patients not getting their meals on time. It would be a major problem, so the robots must also integrate with the lifts and the doors in the hospitals.

“Camello+ is able to operate indoor, as well as outdoor, so if you have two hospital blocks and you have to go to outdoor, it can manage. That makes it a game-changer.”

Steps and staircases are a major blockade for the movement of Camello+. But as most hospitals have ramps, lifts and automatic doors – most of these features provide for suitable environments in which it can operate.

The system is designed to improve while in use by learning from the environment in which it works and gathering software data to make it more efficient.

So far, more than 50 hospitals have the Transcar robot designed by OTSAW that can transport heavy loads around a centre.

“The future is all about big data,” said Mr Ling. “We can integrate different kinds of robot on the same platform, using the same software – then we give the customer the data so they can plan efficiencies. This is how smart hospitals should function in the future.

“Most of the challenges hospitals face today [are centred on] labour shortages for mundane jobs a lot of people do not want to do.

“We are helping augment these operations, so the hospital can reassign the human to do something more on the patient care, the touch point.”

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) such as the Camello+ can simplify routine tasks and reduce the physical demands on the human workforce.

Cleaning and disinfection AMRs also allow hospitals to maintain hygiene standards, to reduce the spread of infection.

They can also help with the heavy lifting of beds, equipment and even patients to reduce physical pressures that care staff face.

Dr Azad Moopen, chairman and managing director of Aster DM Healthcare, said robots were beginning to take on a greater role across the care industry.

“Automation is something which is happening everywhere, but it has a huge role in health care,” he said. “From the very basics, such as the bar coding of medicines given to the patients or the bar coding of blood samples and all other materials that need to be precisely managed – automation is crucial to avoid a patient getting a wrong treatment or medicine.

“It is one area where there has been tremendous development.”

Aster operates hospitals across the Middle East and India, with robots expected to play a greater role in operations in the near future.

“There are many areas where robots can come in to work which don't require a human touch,” said Dr Moopen. “In health care, that is extremely important but, at the same time, there are many automatic things which can be done via AI.

“Pathology and X-rays are already monitored by AI to a great extent. Although we have not started using service robots yet, we are using bots in our customer service, to reduce delays and manpower.”

Improving technology

Improved motion control technology has resulted in surgical assistance robots used by doctors to perform complex procedures becoming more precise and faster.

It has even allowed some tasks for be completed autonomously, allowing surgeons to oversee procedures from a console.

At Arab Health, Italian company Asa Laser is showcasing its latest bone consolidation therapy, which repairs broken bones using magnetic fields.

The treatment is delivered autonomously from a hospital bed, and can help strengthen weakened bones in osteoarthritis patients.

“The user can set up a full scan on the body of the patient who just lies there for a 20-minute cycle of the therapy,” said Carlo Marchesini, a marketing manager at Asa Laser.

“It is an extremely low-frequency and low-intensity magnetic field, which is the most studied form of this kind of technology.

“It first requires some thought to define the right diagnosis and recovery path for the patient, then the automated tool takes over.”

Updated: January 31, 2024, 7:38 AM