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eTech Insight – March of the Killer Robots: The Good Kind

Reliable and Safe Robotic Disinfection Processes for Healthcare Facilities

Hospital-acquired infections and patients with highly infectious diseases have always been a challenge for healthcare systems to manage. COVID-19 elevated the need to develop a higher level of cleaning and sanitization processes to protect staff and patients. Healthcare executives acquired a new awareness of the needs for different housecleaning approaches that would be needed to provide safer, faster, and less costly cleaning processes.

Housecleaning staff in COVID-19 wards use the same personal protection equipment (PPE) that clinicians treating the patients use. This is costly and reduces the PPE that is available for the frontline clinicians to use. Housecleaning services have become a job that few people want in the COVID-19 environment.

Other areas that are ripe for improved cleaning services include nursing stations and physician lounges. The ability to clean thoroughly and quickly will mitigate the interference with clinician activities in these areas. The ability to quickly clean a room for receiving new patients is especially important in the COVID-19 hot spots where bed capacity is a critical factor for treating infected patients.

Exposure to life-threatening diseases is not a factor conducive to hiring and maintaining an effective cleaning staff. The ability for healthcare organizations to design and manage a housecleaning service that uses both human and robotic resources will become a key factor in managing future healthcare costs.

UVC Robots as a Viable and Cost-Effective Cleaning Service

Robotics companies have designed and are delivering the first generation of UVC robots that will improve healthcare facility cleaning processes. These robots use a UVC wavelength that has been proven to damage the DNA and RNA of bacterial and virus pathogens and stop them from replicating. These robots autonomously navigate mapped healthcare facilities and eliminate pathogens from high-touch areas for both airborne and droplet-infectious agents.

Robots also have infrared sensors to detect human presence and shut off the UVC light when people are detected in a proximity that could be harmful to humans. The infrared sensors are also used to enable navigation of the robots through rooms, corridors, elevators, and automatic doors. Some of these robots can raise their UVC light platform to ensure that countertops, beds, and other high-level surfaces are appropriately disinfected.

Healthcare organizations that are using robots for facility sanitization need to evaluate where robots are effective and where human labor is still required. While the robots may be effective in cleaning hard surfaces, they are not likely to be effectively in completely cleaning toilets, sinks, bathtubs, and showers.

UVC robots have a battery life that ranges from 2.5–4 hours and charging times of approximately 45–90 minutes. Rooms can be cleaned in 5 minutes. These robot solutions will also generate daily and weekly reports on the areas they have covered as well as maintenance alerts for the robots.

UVC robots will improve the level and timeliness of cleaning services throughout the healthcare facility.

Reducing Labor Overhead with More Effective Disinfection Capabilities

Housekeeping and cleaning service costs for medical facilities have a high labor component. Additional labor issues are related to cleaning staff turnover and, in some cases, working with unions that represent these people. COVID-19 will drive higher wages and additional costs related to PPE that these workers require to remain safe while performing their functions.

The use of UVC robots to provide a component of the cleaning services 24/7 with no vacations or sick leave will reduce current human staffing challenges for these services. Healthcare organizations will need to conduct studies on how many robots will be needed to provide effective cleaning services relative to recharging times associated with the robots. The ROI for using UVC robots for cleaning services is likely to be appealing.

Robotics Focused Companies

The robotic companies that provide UVC robots for healthcare systems are represented by the following:

These UVC robot products should be compared in terms of battery, charging, network requirements, reports, and maintenance specifications. These solutions are also early versions of the products, which risk-averse organizations should avoid at this time.

Success Factors

  1. Use prototype UVC robot in areas where disinfection and cleaning need to be highly effective and accomplished in a short time, like COVID-19 wards.
  2. Evaluate UVC robot design relative to mapping capabilities, battery run times, battery charging times, and speed of operations to understand how many robots will be needed.
  3. Establish guidelines on when and where to use UVC robots or human labor to deliver cleaning services.

Summary

Robotics in healthcare will continue to evolve to provide reliable and low-cost services. Robots can be used to deliver supplies and medications[1], deliver meals to patients[2], provide a level of companionship for patients[3], and improve disinfection capabilities for all areas of a healthcare facility. Robots will enable healthcare organizations to reduce their labor and benefits costs while improving the availability for services performed.

Healthcare organizations that are implementing robots to supplement human labor for the above services will establish a clear cost and quality differential from their competitors, and that is likely to improve their long-term viability as we move to capitated at-risk contracts for care delivery.

Imagine being admitted to a hospital and having your first encounter be with a humanoid robot that checks you in, takes you to your room, orders your meal or snack, and alerts the nurse and physician of your admission.


     Photo Credit: Adobe Stock, Andrey Popov