AFTER THE PANDEMIC, DOCTORS WANT THEIR NEW ROBOT HELPERS TO STAY
The robot arrived just a few days after Christine Kiernan, an orthopedic surgeon at Tullamore Hospital in Ireland, was diagnosed with COVID-19. She’d arranged for Violet, an autonomous ultraviolet cleaning machine, to start trials at Tullamore to help the hospital adapt to staff shortages caused by the pandemic. But on Violet’s first day of work, Kiernan was already laid up in bed.
“It was awful, I’m not going to lie,” Kiernan, who’s since fully recovered from the disease, tells The Verge. “Thankfully I wasn’t critically unwell, but you do just feel like crap for weeks. Your energy’s gone for. And I have two kiddies, babies really, and there’s no social distancing you can do from a one-year-old and a two-year-old.”
The unfortunate timing of her diagnosis aside, Kiernan’s experience with Violet was something of a revelation. Like many health care workers around the world, her job has become significantly more challenging with the arrival of COVID-19. The normal busyness of hospital life has been supplemented by new complications: staff shortages, demands for personal protective equipment, and rigorous cleaning regimes to keep the virus at bay.
But machines like Violet, says Kiernan, have helped with these problems, proving their worth in a time of crisis. And like other doctors The Verge spoke to, Kiernan says that when the pandemic is over, the robots should stay.
“The reaction from staff, and anyone who’s seen it really, has been so positive,” says Kiernan of Violet. “They love that we’re embracing technology, but also that the results it’s achieving are exceeding what we can do manually. We’re protecting the staff, we’re protecting the patients, and we’re protecting the cleaners.”
That sense of robotic wonder has been useful at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona, where telepresence bots built by OhmniLabs have been used to entertain children confined to their rooms because of the pandemic. A number of hospitals are using telepresence robots (which are essentially iPads on wheels) to help doctors see patients without risk of infection. But in Phoenix, the robots are helping the young patients get out and about.
Using the telepresence robots, children have been able to take trips outside the hospital to places like fire stations; to participate in the hospital’s close circuit TV channel, which beams live game shows and quizzes into patient’s rooms; and to host visitors like family members, local sports stars, and even a caricature artist, who used the telepresence bots to sketch the children remotely and then send their portraits to the hospital to be printed out.
Having a physical avatar for these visits makes a huge psychological difference, staff tell The Verge. When there’s a robot that can be steered around remotely, rather than a simple Skype call on a tablet, the children feel a greater sense of connection to the outside world.
“They’ve been a surprising asset to have during this time,” Matt Bryson, who maintains electronic equipment for the children’s ward at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, tells The Verge. “If we didn’t have the robots we wouldn’t have been able to have these special visits. It’s a huge benefit for our patients, to have these experiences when they’re not allowed to experience a lot of other things.”