Hospitals are home to doctors, surgeons, nurses, therapists, cleaners, and the like, all of which are human. However, in Singapore’s Changi General Hospital (CGH), a great part of their workforce consists of robots. From performing surgery to doing administrative work to cleaning and so on, robots have become an integral part of the hospital. This is made possible through the Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology (CHART) which works hand-in-hand with CGH to seek and provide high-tech solutions for healthcare.
Singapore is not a stranger to robots in the field as it’s the country with the highest adoption rate of industrial robots anywhere in the world, with 9 per 100 workers, most of them in the electronics sector. While CHART has been in operation since 2015, the pandemic created a wide need for contactless and remote healthcare solutions. To address that, Sarah Seah, CHART’s director, stated, “There is growing awareness that robots are becoming more important in our work. Due to Covid-19 and the fact that we have to take care of more patients with less manpower, robots are now a welcome part of our daily life.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that by 2030, there will be a global shortage of 18 million health workers. Small nations such as Singapore are vulnerable to the “three tsunamis” in healthcare, namely an aging population, a shrinking workforce, and an increase in chronic disease. The 65-and-over population is expected to have an increase by 25% in the next decade, which is a huge jump from 14% in 2019.
To boost productivity, CHART has enlisted the help of assistive technology and robotics. Among the best-known robots in the hospital are the surgical robots, such as the da Vinci Surgical System. They act as the human surgeon’s eyes with their assistance in minimally invasive surgeries. Other robots in the hospital clean, deliver linen or food, help with hospital maintenance, aid patient rehabilitation, and can even assist with lifting patients back into their beds.
“It’s quite common for our young nurses to get backaches two or three years into the job. Robots can do this dangerous, manual work so that our nurses then can concentrate on providing good clinical care for our patients,” said Seah, noting that the robots help reduce the back-breaking work that human carers do.
CGH has seen technology help improve virtual health services. Heart disease and diabetes are responsible for around 71% of global death each year. Seah says that non-communicable diseases add extra pressure to the already-strained healthcare system. CGH realized that repeat visits to the hospital from patients with chronic illnesses were not sustainable and so, the hospital adopted a smart “telecare” system. This system allows doctors to monitor patients who are at home and identify their issues early on.
The hospital has also employed social robots to provide care and companionship for elderly patients who have dementia by playing memory games and helping with group therapy. Seah particularly noted PARO, a social robot, helped in alleviating the stress and anxiety of dementia patients that the hospital was able to reduce its use of sedatives. “We thought the aged patients would not take well to the robots. However, we discovered in our research that elderly patients look at robots like life-sized toys. So they are brought back to their childhood and in fact, able to interact and respond better to therapy with robots than they do with a human,” she said.
Aside from CGH, robots have also become a support staff in other hospitals around the world, namely the Copenhagen University Hospital and the Zealand University Hospital in Denmark. The robots helped in blood sample testing, as well as traveling more than 10 kilometers each week to deliver equipment, respectively.
Marcelo Ang, a professor of mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore’s Advance Robotics Center stated, “Robotics has very good potential to make people’s lives more meaningful, by letting them not do the ‘five Ds’: degrading, demeaning, dirty, dangerous or driving tasks.” He also added that robots are not a replacement for human workers. Instead, they are a support. Robots can take on roles that are laborious or contribute to tasks that require high levels of precision.
The pandemic has sped up the development of robotics and logistics. Autonomous robots can clean and disinfect rooms, reducing the risks that healthcare workers face in their field. Technology has also helped in enabling doctors to meet patients virtually. With the growing demand for remote healthcare solutions, Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong-based team, unveiled a human-like robot named Grace that can diagnose patients using AI and lead therapy sessions.
While there are numerous benefits to employing robotics in hospitals, Seah noted that integrating robots in the workplace is costly and requires expensive infrastructure. Concerns about data privacy and security were also raised; hospitals will need robust, fool-proof cybersecurity to prevent hacking sensitive patient information.
The challenges, especially in the pandemic, have made it worthwhile for CGH as it has given them an opportunity to increase efficiency and safety. “This is how we think we should use technology: to help us reach out to more patients so they get better-quality care,” Seah said.