Robot rounds quicken hospital’s med delivery

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Four robots are working overtime at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, MD, and their hard work is speeding up medication deliveries.

The robots don't complain, get tired, or need a break no matter how many hours they work. The mobile TUG robots—dubbed Rigby, Herbie the love TUG, Jake, and Elwood—simply coast the facility's hallways 24 hours a day, seven days a week, delivering medications to the nursing stations.Thanks to all their hard work, staff who previously delivered medication have been able to spend more time on patient care and less on pushing carts.

The hospital brought Aethon's TUG system, which was developed to assist hospitals in delivering and tracking supplies, on board in September, and the robots deliver medications to the nursing stations about every 45 minutes.

"[Previously] we were using staff who were doing hourly deliveries," says Lisa Polinsky, pharmacy operations manager at Sinai. "Our goal with the TUGs was 30-minute deliveries. We have not reached it yet, but we are getting closer."

Polinsky says the facility is still working on reducing the time between when the medication is verified and prepared in the pharmacy to when it gets to the units.

Making robotic rounds

The robot's rounds start in Sinai's pharmacy. Polinsky says here staff receive physicians' medication orders, prepare the medications, and load them into drawers built into the TUGs. Using a touch screen, staff then program the TUGs to send them on their way.

"You select the TUG you want to send out, you select the units you want it to go to, you hit 'go', and the TUG will leave the pharmacy and head to those units," says Polinsky.

During deliveries, pharmacy staff can track the TUG's progress by viewing a map of the TUG's location. The robot even alerts staff each time it makes a stop.

"They announce 'delivery has arrived,'" says Polinsky.

On the units, nurses punch in a code to open the TUG's drawer and retrieve the medication. The TUGs then navigate back to the pharmacy where they dock themselves back on their bases to charge. The robots can successfully use doors and elevators, but it helps if staff keep their paths clear.

"On the units, people will leave beds and computers in the hallway and it decreases the TUG's turnaround time because it will stop and go around them," Polinsky says. Laser "light whiskers" allow the TUGs to detect whether objects or people are in front of them and then immediately stop.

Transitioning with TUGs

As efficient as they are at the facility, Polinsky says the TUGs took some getting used to. (A short video posted on Aethon's Web site lets you see one in action.)

"Initially patients didn't quite know what to do with them. Some were afraid of them and some people tried to talk to them," says Polinsky.

To incorporate them into the hospital system, Sinai held a naming contest.

"We've kind of personalized them, making them more human-like," Polinsky says. "Jake and Elwood were named after the Blues Brothers."

Staff and patients now refer to the TUGs as "him" or "her" and a TUG wardrobe may even be developed in the future to personify them further.

Aside from never calling in sick, a big perk of the robots is that they are more cost effective than having staff delivering medications. According to the company that makes them, one TUG working just two shifts seven days a week works the equivalent of 2.8 full-time workers and costs only one-fourth as much.

"They basically do the job that three people did during the day," says Polinsky.

The TUGs can also hold up to 500 pounds of supplies, work continuously for up to 10 hours, and—according to Polinsky—can be a good PR agent.

"It has been a good experience," she says. "I think [implementing TUGs] has helped improve the relationship between nursing and pharmacy because it is something new and is something that staff got excited about."