Some countries are using disease-resilient robots on coronavirus frontlines

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Robots are coming to the rescue across the world as the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten the lives of those on the medical front line.

In China, engineers have designed a remote-controlled robot that can take mouth swabs to test for the virus, perform ultrasound scans and listen to organs with a stethoscope.

Stationed by the bedside, they can provide an instant video link between patients and the nursing staff, assistants, and doctors.

Robots can complete routine tasks, like checking respiration, oxygenation, and blood pressure, and updating observations and patient records.

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In Italy, a small, smiley-faced robot called Tommy is one of six helping human doctors and nurses care for coronavirus patients at the Circolo Hospital in Varese, a city in the northern Lombardy region that is the epicenter of the outbreak in Italy.

The robots are wheeled into rooms and left by a patient's bedside so doctors can look after others who are in more serious conditions.

Robots like Tommy can monitor routine health indicators to give a crucial picture of patients’ health conditions.

Most importantly, Tommy and his high-tech comrades allow the hospital to limit the amount of direct contact doctors and nurses have with patients, thus reducing the risk of infection.

More than 4,000 Italian health workers have contracted the virus treating victims, and 66 doctors have died.

The shortage of masks and personal protective equipment has been one of the biggest problems dogging the national health system since the contagion surfaced at the end of February.

Robots to the rescue

Robots can be used behind the scenes as well, delivering meals to patients, removing soiled linens, monitoring medical inventory, and distributing medical supplies. They can even serve as automatic room sanitizers when equipped with UV-C sterilising lights.

According to Dr. Wendy L. Schultz, director at UK-based Infinite Futures, not all robots are hardware either.

“Software ‘bots’ can assist nurses and health administrators in administrative tasks, such as updating patient records. Machine learning can assist in analyzing massive public health data sets for patterns that might assist in developing vaccines and treatments,” she told Al Arabiya English.

Schultz said the world will see a push toward automated nurses as the countries battle COVID-19, but the technology is still in its early stages.

Read more: Watch coronavirus spread across the globe: Ten questions answered

“We are at the beginning of artificial intelligence and robotics innovation. While robots are getting ever more agile and capable in terms of movement and routine tasks, none of them operate with true artificial intelligence – indeed, many of them are tele-presence, or remotely controlled, robots,” she said. “Even sophisticated machine learning software is still flawed by in-built bias.”

A robot helping medical teams treat patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is pictured at the corridor, in the Circolo hospital, in Varese, Italy. (Reuters)
A robot helping medical teams treat patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is pictured at the corridor, in the Circolo hospital, in Varese, Italy. (Reuters)

Some doctors are even holding up COVID-19 as a potential catalyst for hastening the so-far lagging health-tech revolution.

Dr. Alexander Yip, clinical director of Health Technology at Alexandra Hospital in Singapore, has deployed a new telepresence robot, BeamPro, enabling doctors and staff to examine patients remotely.

Dr. Yip told the Bangkok Post he sees the COVID-19 pandemic as “an opportunity for us to accelerate healthcare transformation.”

A growing robot-nurse population

Maneesh Juneja, a London-based digital health futurist who examines the convergence of emerging technologies, said the role of robot nurses in the fight against COVID-19 is growing in many countries, and it's not limited to richer countries either.

“The attitude toward the use of robot nurses varies tremendously across the world, with greater acceptance and trust of robots in countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea,” said Juneja.

“Given that the fight against COVID-19 will take many more months until a vaccine is available, there is likely to be further development of companion robots to help patients isolated from society when in quarantine, so that their mental health does not suffer greatly,” he said.

However, the digital health futurist said that robot nurses have their limitations. They are capable of routine tasks, and they’re tireless and disease-free, but they have yet to master a loving bedside manner.

Juneja pointed out that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was in ICU battling COVID-19, publicly thanked the human nurses who had cared for him, not the robots.

“There are many complex decisions that need to be made by nurses, which not only require extensive training, but also require a lot of teamwork, communication, and intelligence,” he said.

“Nurses play a unique role in caring for patients in the hospital, and outside of a pandemic, we are still going to be relying upon human nurses for a long time.”

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