Robots! To the nurses' station, stat

'Tug' and 'Homer' help with hospital deliveries

While deadly Terminator-style robots are making a comeback in a new television series, a more benign variety of the machines are delivering drugs and tracking medical equipment throughout a North Carolina hospital.

Called "Tug" and "Homer", the robots from Aethon Inc. are reducing costs at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst, N.C., said CIO Dave Dillehunt.

"Our motto is 'We care for people,' and robots are one way we do it," Dillehunt said in an interview.

Dillehunt estimates that the hospital has already saved $150,000 by using its five robots. In addition to making deliveries, the robots locate expensive medical equipment wirelessly with RFID tags, which means the hospital can reduce the supply of equipment on hand. He said the hospital was able to cut the number of infusion pumps by 250, down from 700, resulting in that $150,000 savings.

In all, the robots have replaced four workers who made deliveries, but all four were trained for other jobs, Dillehunt said. The robots first appeared in 2006, but RFID tracking started last summer. "There was staff concern initially, but [the robots have] actually freed up staff for other things," he said.

The robots move on wheels and navigate by dead reckoning and lasers, relying on a blueprint of hospital hallways in their memories to calculate turns and distances and the locations of elevators, said Barry Skirble, CIO at Aethon in Pittsburgh. Using a wireless network, they can even call for an elevator.

The Tug robot pulls a cart of supplies at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst, N.C.

If a robot encounters an obstacle as it moves, it can communicate via the wireless network to its home base in the hospital and then via VPN to Aethon's help desk, where workers can provide real-time navigation help, Skirble said.

Aethon relies on Cisco networking, VPN and wireless products to support its robots. It has installed about 200 robots in 105 hospitals in the U.S. Each robot leases for about $1,800 per month, including service, Skirble said.

While there has been no attempt to make the robots appear human, they do have recorded voices that notify people in the hallways when they are crossing, which either confuses or delights visitors, Dillehunt said. "You'll see teenagers hopping in front of them and people talking back to them," he said.

Skirble said the robots are generally programmed with a woman's voice to include several standard warnings, but they can be set up with any person's voice. "Nurses, who are mostly women, tend to want it to be a man's voice for some reason," he said.

The "Tug" robots, which are about the size of a canister vacuum cleaner, can be attached to a variety of hospital carts. They can "tug" a cart holding as many as 10 large bins with paper document files or pharmaceuticals that need to be delivered from central locations to nurses' stations, he said. "They are pretty reliable," Dillehunt said. He hopes to expand their use to deliver patient meals to various floors, so hospital personnel can then deliver them to individual patients. "Homer" is a homing device that can locate hospital equipment that has RFID tags attached.

There are four Tugs and one Homer at FirstHealth Moore and, using a RFID antennas, all five are used to track the location of medical equipment in a sector of the bigger building as they move about, Dillehunt said. When a robot pings a medical device with an RFID tag, it can store that location data until it returns to home base, where the information is transferred to a server. Aethon first announced the RFID functionality a year ago, and FirstHealth added it over the summer.

By using the robots, Dillehunt is able to keep his Wi-Fi network free of constant radio traffic from RFID tags on hundreds of devices, he said. "I needed a system to keep RFID from flooding my regular Wi-Fi network," he noted.

While the robots are working well and will be expanded to two other smaller hospitals in the FirstHealth of the Carolinas system, Dillehunt said he sees a limitation when it comes to using them to help keep track of patients wearing RFID-tagged armbands.

"People move a little faster than the robots and could be pretty far away by the time the robot made its way back to base" to tell someone where the person was seen, he said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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