Seton, Diligent Droids, UT join forces to research hospital robot applications
“I’m here at Ascension Seton Medical Center to show you some of the ways I can be a part of the patient care team,” said Poli, the hospital assistant robot prototype, to an amused crowd of clinicians on the sixth floor of Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin (SMCA). “I need some socks,” it continued, as it reached its long mechanical arm for a pair of blue socks and a bottle of lotion, and placed them in its basket, preparing to assemble a patient care kit.
Staff gathered around the orange and grey android to experience firsthand what the future of robotics in hospitals might look like. They held conversations with the robot, took selfies with it, learned how to teach Poli to do hospital tasks, and observed as the droid performed those functions.
Poli, named so because she can do many things, is part of research pioneered by Ascension Seton and robotics company Diligent Droids to study how robots can be used to support hospital care teams. The robot prototype was originally developed at UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering. Ascension Seton is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.
At SMCA, Ascension Seton and Diligent Droids researchers assessed the types of non-clinical hospital tasks that robots could be trained to perform and used those observations of actual hospital staff activities to program Poli.
The goal: saving precious hospital staff time so they can focus more energy and uninterrupted attention on caring for patients.
“Time is precious and we want to spend our time with our patients, not on non-clinical tasks that a robot can do,” said Kristi Henderson, Seton’s vice president of virtual care and innovation, and lead investigator of the study. “The community trusts us to provide person-centered care, and this is just one more way we are doing that. We’re constantly working to improve the patient’s experience,” Henderson said.
As part of the research, Poli has been testing out its newly acquired skills on Ascension Seton’s hospital floors. Poli, who walks and talks on its own, has been programmed to follow simple directions for perfunctory actions like assembling packages, fetching supplies and refilling bins. Some other tasks the robot could be used for include finding IV poles, making safety rounds, and checking maintenance stickers on equipment, said Andrea Thomaz, PhD, Diligent Droids CEO and professor at UT’s engineering school.
“We don’t intend for Poli to enter patient rooms; the robot is meant to be strictly behind the lines of patient care,” said Thomaz.
It also knows how to navigate hospital spaces without getting in the way of others, among various abilities.
“A lot of our time is spent running from one end of the hall to the supply room to get things that our patients need,” said Jessica Meinhardt-Salazar, RN, a nursing shift supervisor at SMCA. “The research team took records of how much time we spent fetching things and I think that’s part of the reason they chose to focus on that. By having a robot on our unit, it frees up time for us to spend in direct patient care,” said Meinhardt-Salazar.
Henderson’s team and Diligent Droids plans to resume its research with Poli at SMCA and Dell Children’s in 2017.
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