ABB’s robotic lab technician, YuMi, and Nurse Ratched have more in common than might appear at first blush. They’re both cold; they’re both heartless; and they both really want to help you take your meds.
But while Nurse Ratched notoriously represents the corrupting power of institutionalized bureaucracy, this robot, named YuMi, just wants to help hospitals and research labs run a little smoother.
The Swiss robotics and automation company showcased the roving lab tech earlier this fall at its new healthcare research hub, which is a collaboration with Texas Medical Research Innovation Institute in Houston. The hybrid lab combines a staff of 20 with an array of robotic assistants to test new ways that humans and machines can collaborate at the heart of medicine.
And there’s some urgency to their work. Baby Boomers are aging, and an unprecedented number of Americans are poised to enter the healthcare system over the next 10 years. Simultaneously, the industry is facing a deep shortage of nurses, doctors and other medical staff — particularly in home healthcare. There’s hope that robotics, artificial intelligence and automation will help leaders navigate these seismic demographic shifts and deliver care to more people and potentially with fewer resources.
Making the Rounds
In contrast to gargantuan robotic arms locked in cages along automobile assembly lines, YuMi is designed to work closely with humans as a gentler, collaborative sidekick. YuMi’s precise touch and range of motion make it adaptable to a wide range of tasks, from basics like sorting and unboxing to more elaborate tasks like folding paper airplanes, playing pool or directing symphonies.
For one of their medical bot prototypes, ABB engineers simply mounted YuMi atop a moving platform. YuMi uses its machine vision to avoid staffers and other obstacles, and can be programmed to do any number of rote, time-consuming tasks. YuMi could pick-up patient tests and transport them to the lab for processing. Delivering food and linens is no problem. YuMi can even easily deliver morning and evening medications right to door.
ABB also fitted a lab with other YuMi concepts that sort pills, prepare and unpackage medicines, load and unload centrifuges, and execute lab work pipetting. The robots are best suited for the repetitive, high volume tasks that consume a big part of staff time. ABB engineers say robots can perform these tasks 50 percent faster, and can also do them 24 hours a day. Ultimately, it gives staff more time to focus on higher-level work.
“The health care sector is undergoing significant transformation as the diagnosis and treatment of disease advances, while coping with an aging population, increasing costs and a growing worldwide shortage of medical staff,” Sami Atiya, president of ABB’s robotics and discrete automation business, said in a press release.
Feeling the Crunch
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General found that 96 percent of VA facilities reported at least one “severe” occupational shortage as of December 2018. Thirty-nine percent reported 20 or more shortages. Mercer, a healthcare consultancy, estimates the United States will need to hire 2.3 million healthcare workers by 2025 to address the labor gap.
Robots could be key to helping drive down the costs of care and help medical workers do more with smaller teams. ABB estimates there will be some 60,000 medical robots on the job within five years or so. Robots, along with telemedicine, data mining, advances in genetics and so much more, are radically redefining what it means to visit the doctor.