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OM in the News: R2D2 Enters the Hospital Hallways

March 20, 2012

Thousands of “service robots” are entering US hospitals. “Picture R2D2 from ‘Star Wars’ carrying a tray of medications or a load of laundry down hospital corridors'” writes The Wall Street Journal  (March 15, 2012).  As America’s elderly population grows, the country’s health care system is facing cost pressures and a shortage of medical personnel. Administrators are planning to foist some of the less glamorous work onto robots. “We are just not going to have enough human hands to do all the work,” says an industry expert.

The new breed of service robots are self-aware, intelligent (using advanced sensors and motion detectors tied to powerful microprocessors and voice activation), and able to navigate changing environments, even in chaotic hospitals.  InTouch Health, in Santa Barbara, has machines that allow doctors to connect to far-flung patients with videoconferencing. The robots enable a doctor to make rounds virtually and check on patients from miles away. More than 400 hospitals are using the InTouch machines.

 Aethon, in Pittsburgh, has sold robots to over 100 hospitals. These machines haul food trays, linens, medical trash, drugs, and medical records around the hospital, all while staying out of the way of rushing doctors and nurses. While the robots are popular with hospital staff, a union spokesperson at El Camino Hospital (which has 20 robots deployed) says: “We will always advocate for good jobs in which community members could be doing the work.”

(There is a short video on the robots embedded in the WSJ article as well.)

Discussion questions:

1. Ask the class to name some other service applications of robots.

2. What are the advantages and limitations of using robots in hospitals?

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