It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the weaknesses in hospitals across the globe. In the early days of the pandemic, U.S. hospitals ran out of space at morgues and needed refrigerated trucks to store bodies. Soon hospitals became so overwhelmed that states introduced pop-up hospitals in parks and convention centers. Meanwhile, hospitals in India had to turn away patients simply because of room and resources like oxygen.
It’s not just resources that are limited. It’s also workforces, especially in areas of care outside of typical COVID-19 care line treatment for those with cancer, Alzheimer’s and dementia. That’s in part why hospital systems and healthcare systems around the globe are embracing, what seemingly feels like something out of sci-fi film, humanoid robots in the hospital.
SoftBank Robotics humanoid robot Pepper has been a lifeline for hospitals stretched thin through the pandemic. Hospitals in France have used Pepper to allow COVID patients to stay in touch with their families. The robot holds a tablet computer, allowing medical staff to limit contact with the deadly virus.
In Japan, Pepper is being used to provide general information and greet people as they enter the hospital.
In Sweden, they’re being used to be a playful distraction for pediatric cancer patients who still need care despite the virus which to this day has killed at least four million people worldwide.
Pepper is also being utilized in Germany to help with dementia patients at St. Marien-Hospital in Cologne, Germany. During COVID-19, doctors have been forced to wear PPE to such extremes that they’re borderline unrecognizable. That’s a challenge when memory exercises are essential to their welfare and longevity.
“It’s really an interesting tool in COVID-19 pandemic where we have reduced capacities to enter rooms,” Dr. Ralf-Joachim Schulz, head of the Department of Geriatric Medicine and Rehabilitation at St. Marien-Hospital in Cologne, Germany tells Observer.
“With dementia patients, it [COVID-19 protocols] have reduced the contact time nurses would otherwise like to do,” Dr. Schulz says adding “What we’ve realized is that we have an additional tool to interact with patients.”
Pepper is part of a bigger industry sprouting around the globe to assist hospitals.
Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, the minds behind Sophia, are making a new model that goes by the name Grace. Much like Pepper, one of Grace’s big strengths is to work with the elderly. The hope is that the robots will keep them socially stimulated, especially at a time when human contact could have spread the COVID-19 virus amongst a population extra susceptible to poor outcomes.
Grace also has a thermal camera in her chest. That can take vitals like temperature.
Another major player in the space, Pollen Robotics, uses telepresence, meaning a doctor could operate surgery remotely. Using VR, a robot called Reachy allows a surgeon to perform surgery from the other side of the globe.
Additionally, Reachy helps hospitals distribute masks and take patient temperatures in the emergency room as well as help patients with mobility issues. “Our healthcare application allows Reachy to mimic human motions. This is really helpful for people with disabilities,” Dr. Matthieu Lapeyre, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO tells Observer.
These companies also face stiff competition stateside. Boston Dynamics, whose quadruped robotic system that looks like a dog has been the subject of numerous viral videos over the years, is working with hospitals including Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. As part of their partnership, the two groups studied patient receptiveness to robots conducting tasks like nasal swabs.
Generally, the role this industry plays in the United States is just starting. While innovative new healthcare tools like these could be game-changing, the barrier of entry is set high. Innovative tools like these inherently come with hefty price tags. Rural hospitals, as well as hospitals in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, may struggle to stay competitive.
The rising cost of healthcare for the consumer also means the financial burden hospitals face is also on the rise. In fact, earlier this year Heights Hospital in Houston, Texas had to shutter its doors simply because it couldn’t pay the bills.
Meanwhile, rural hospitals have been hit especially hard. In 2020, 20 different hospitals had to close for good. That’s part of a bigger trend impacting the more than 60 million Americans living in rural communities. A staggering 136 hospitals closed over the last decade.
There are indications that pandemics like COVID-19 could be much more frequent in the not-so-distant future. The question is will hospitals be prepared to fill the gaps the next time public health systems are pushed to the brink of collapse.