How Have Humanoid Robots Been Effective in Supporting our Healthcare Workers during COVID-19?
COVID-19 has shaped the world in many different socioeconomic ways. One of the most affected sectors is the healthcare industry. Outside of the humanitarian and health crisis the virus presents, medical staff have been working around the clock to keep people safe and healthy. Originally deployed to help maintain social distancing and as a pill delivery solution, robots have been an essential tool to not only help staff keep their patients and the elderly in care homes safe, but robots have also been important in helping keep health guidelines in hospitals. Our robot Pepper has also been in the frontlines at the height of this pandemic, tested in Brussels, Kanagawa, and Paris hospitals, and in this article, these particular use cases will be explored. However, it’s important to explain the context of this situation and what robotic solutions are available currently.
The COVID-19 Context
It is safe to say that everyone is familiar with the current global pandemic we are facing today. However, to set the stage we must specify a few things. What has made COVID-19 highly infectious is that it is spread through contact, with recent talks about the possibility of it being also contracted through airborne particles. Droplets from breathing, sneezing, talking, etc are the biggest culprits. Hence why mask-wearing and social distancing have been humongous factors in culling the spread of the virus. In a study published by The Lancet*, the leading medical journal, mask-wearing can reduce the risk of infection by at least 14% and that distances 1m and greater help greatly reduce the risk of contraction as well.
Another important factor of the pandemic is that older demographics are amongst the most vulnerable. In a study published by the USA’s CDC (Center for Disease Control), the death rate is higher amongst the aging population. In every 100,000 USA hospitalizations, about 500 85+ years old people on average succumb to the illness.**
Such findings are concerning, as Europe has an aging population. According to Mediapart and the French government, in France for example, 20.4% of the population is aged 65 and up. This means that about 13 million people are vulnerable to the virus. In France alone, there are an estimated 750,000 senior people living in care homes. Another country with a high aged demographic is Germany, with an estimated 800,000 people living in retirement homes according to a Deutsche Welle publication***. This makes care homes, along with hospitals places of great concern.
In hospitals, reducing interaction or need for contact is important, due to the amount of cases hospitals have been experiencing. At its peak, the UK, according to the NHS England figures****, there were well over 15,000 total hospitalizations. Finding ways to keep the elderly and other susceptible persons safe in hospitals and care homes has become a priority.
Why humanoid robots during and post COVID:
An increase in contactless and safe solutions to implement in hospitals via robotics has not been unjustified given the current circumstances we are living in today. There are several major functionalities and solutions that humanoid robots provide that can help in today’s environment.
Telepresence and teleoperation:
Telepresence allows people to video in from any remote location to another person, the same as teleoperation allows anyone to operate a robot from any location. In this sense, medical staff do not have to be physically present to diagnose their patients or even check on their current ones that may be hospitalized. This can greatly reduce the risk of infection.
Another bonus is that it allows families to stay in touch with their affected loved ones, without putting each other at risk. This is especially important in hospitals, especially mid pandemic, where feelings of loneliness are common amongst patients. Helping those affected maintain a social link is extremely important to allow them to stay healthy mentally. More importantly, since robots do not need to be carried around like a tablet, and normally have integrated cameras and can operate on voice command staff patients do not have to worry about touching them as they would a regular tablet. This reduces the risks of viral infection.
Courtesy of Hôpital Pitié Salpêtrière
Mask-checking, Social Distancing, and edutainment:
Robots like Pepper are capable of helping hospitals ensure that social distancing guidelines are being followed, and provide mask-wearing solutions that ensure visitors, patients, and staff are wearing their masks when on-premises. As discussed earlier, wearing masks and social distancing are paramount tools to fight off the spread of the virus.
Similarly, robots can offer information about the importance of following guidelines and remind people to wear their masks, wash their hands, keep their distance from others.
Some hospitals do not have enough hands on deck to be able to keep up with the large influxes most healthcare facilities have been experiencing. Patrolling is an important solution that helps reduce staff workload, by allowing robots to roam the hospitals and care homes and make sure patients and residents are ok and not in need of immediate help. It can help redirect attention to those who would need more special attention, and thus making staff’s use of their time more efficient.
At reception, robots can help staff with visitors or patients checking in. Alongside VMS, robots can make it easy for visitors to see if they show any symptoms of the novel virus. If there is a more complex issue, medical staff can be contacted via telepresence to more accurately diagnose the problem. It may help reduce the number of people admitted into the hospital, and with the mask checking solution, can help make sure people have their masks on-premises. This solution helps staff and would ensure patients stay safe at the hospital and reduce the risk of contact.
IoT capabilities allow robots or other devices to connect to each other via wireless internet connection. This can be applied to devices such as oximeters, thermometers, or even thermal cameras. Robots, being wireless devices, can take advantage of this technology, and integrate it, allowing them to keep the data safe. Our partner Conserto, in collaboration with Spin’R, developed IoT solutions with Pepper for care homes in France. Pepper allows the elderly to have consultations any time of the day and can send out emergency notices to staff and first emergency responders.
Because of the versatility of humanoid robots and the help they provide, several care centers have started experimenting and innovating with robots and implemented them in healthcare facilities. Robots like Pepper have seen success in their early deployments as a response to the pandemic. Let’s take a look at a few of the most prominent deployments in hospitals during the crisis.
Pepper in Action
Our headquarters at SoftBank Robotics Japan in conjunction with the government of Japan have deployed Peppers in hospitals to educate people on the COVID-19 measures. One such example is Kanagawa Hospital, near Tokyo. Here Pepper greets visitors and patients to the hospital and gives them general warnings about the disease and educates them about safety measures and the use of masks.
Pepper at Kanagawa Hospital
Peppers were also deployed in hotels in Tokyo that were repurposed to house quarantined COVID-19 patients. There Pepper’s tasks were to check patients in, help staff perform their duties more safely and also provide a positive atmosphere by cheering everyone up.
In Brussels, Vrije Universiteit Brussel deployed Pepper in UZ Brussels Hospital, where Pepper worked as a medical assistant. Pepper works to ensure that social distancing is followed and to help staff, visitors, and patients keep safe. Pepper performs telecommunication tasks and can even be contacted through Facebook messenger. Staff and patients consider him cute and positive. According to Bram Vanderborght from Brussels Hospital, “Unlike smartphones and tablets, the autonomous life of Pepper creates the experience of having a companion. Staff and older adults love Pepper. They easily accept Pepper as a new member.” Even today Pepper still works around the clock to have everyone follow the safety guidelines currently in place.
Source: The Brussels Times
Zorabots has another important deployment, although not strictly in direct response to COVID-19, in Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. The hospital in their search for ways to reduce stress and anxiety in child cancer patients, they found a solution in Pepper. He operates in Karolinska with the purpose to ease medical procedures for children and educate them on it. He has helped reduce medical stress for both patients and medical staff, has reduced the need for therapists, and reduced workload for staff.
Source: Karolinska University Hospital
Another deployment in Europe, this time close to home, is in France, at the Hôpital Pitié Salpêtrière. There Pepper has helped reduce stress and workload for staff, has helped COVID-19 patients stay in contact with family and friends, and has helped reduce the risk of physical contact with patients and visitors and staff. Equipped with a telepresence app based on Twilio, families could interact from remote with their beloved ones. According to Hôpital Pitié Salpêtrière staff, “Even when barely awake, the patients have reacted by nodding or slight gestures. It’s great for the close ones who can also put a face on the patients taking care of their relatives.” This sets an example of the benefits robots offer for both hospitals and their patients.
This also brings up concerns from the medical staff. While some welcomed the robot, others were wondering if this would really help them. Robots could not possibly replace caregivers and medical staff, but instead are engineered to give them assistance, by helping them focus on emergencies or more prescient tasks. One thing is for sure, the medical staff enjoyed when Pepper cheered them on, bringing a positive and happy atmosphere during difficult times :
“Over 200 care workers were in contact with Pepper, and they liked him well,” says Pr Alexandre Duguet, a renowned Pneumologist and vice-chairman of Sorbonne Médecine University.
Credit: Eole resuscitation staff, Pitié-Salpetriere Hospital
In Poland, another of our partners, Weegree, worked on a complete demo solution, with Pepper asking you to disinfect your hands and take your body temperature every morning. A simple yet effective way of making gestures against COVID-19 a routine.
Credit: Weegree, Poland
Last but not least, is the issue of mask-wearing enforcement, where shines again by politely reminding people to wear masks to protect themselves and those around them. Shown earlier in the video above, a deep learning algorithm scans up to 5 people to check for masks. This could be very useful in retirement homes and hospitals, who have to routinely screen visitors.
As medical staff is fighting off the virus at the frontlines in hospitals and care homes and patients accumulate, it becomes difficult for staff to keep up and stay safe. Caretakers also find themselves in a difficult situation, as senior citizens in care homes are amongst the most vulnerable to the virus. Humanoids robots offer a multitude of solutions that can ease and reduce staff workload and stress, as well as offer more ways for everyone to keep safe in vulnerable situations, with solutions like mask checking, patrolling, and telepresence. Robots will never replace the human touch of caretakers and medical staff, but they can help reduce workload and make their work easier and efficient. They can come as tremendous aid like the crisis that we are currently living in. Our robot Pepper has demonstrated that robots like him are capable of helping out in the current hospital climate, and seem to be quickly adopted by human staff, as seen in our examples. Do you believe as some doctors do that humanoid robots will be a permanent part of the healthcare industry?