Innovation: Models of efficiency prowl hospital halls

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FLASH, Maxwell and Cookie are three of Stanford University Hospital's most efficient workers. They are on call 23 1/2 hours a day, seven days a week, and they almost always do as they are told without answering back or arguing.

They are robots, and Transitions Research Corporation, which makes them, hopes that the search for efficiency and cost-cutting throughout America's health-care system will soon create greater demand for such workers. So far 18 of the robots are in operation in hospitals in the US. with another seven due to be installed this year.

Flash, Maxwell and Cookie each weigh about 450lbs (204kg) and can carry more than 300lbs. Cookie and Flash are used by the materials management department, a stockholding centre that delivers supplies throughout the hospital, and Maxwell is used by the radiology department to deliver goods to any one of 55 possible destinations within the hospital.

Human staff have to open the robots and load them before they set off on a delivery. Each robot has a map of the hospital in its memory, which calculates the route before setting out, and is linked by radio to a traffic controller computer, which supervises their movements, making sure, for example, that the robots get out of the lift at the correct floor. Patients and visitors are advised not to get into the lift with the robots as they have priority.

The robots have vision sensors for spotting any obstacles. If they have to go around something, the robots compute how far they have deviated from the plotted path, allowing them to get back on track.

If they have a problem they can ask passing humans for advice, and can call out such requests as: 'Please call the operator. I am stuck.'

Stanford Hospital staff accepted the robots on condition that no staff would lose their jobs as a result. It is estimated that each of the dollars 60,000 (pounds 41,000) robots can do the work of 2.5 full-time employees, whose salaries and benefits would cost about dollars 90,000 a year.

Purna Prasad, the engineer who is responsible for the robots, says: 'We really didn't compute that a robot would replace a certain number of people. We took the view that the robots would complement staff that are already here, so that these people can do a much more brain-challenging job than running around delivering things.'

The robots are battery-powered. Each rechargeable battery lasts up to eight hours and takes about 10 minutes to change. Mr Prasad estimates that he spends 5 to 10 hours a month maintaining the robots and installing upgrades to their operating software.

'Eighty per cent of the time the problem is with new users, who call to say, 'The robot is acting crazy', because they have pushed the wrong button.'

Despite some initial problems with software, the robots are so far judged to be a success. 'Now every department wants to use the robots, but we have to be very selective and ensure they are provided for the departments that need them most. One problem is that too many robots would clog the hallways, hindering the movement of patients, so we need a balance,' Mr Prasad says.

The robots are an experimental product, and Transitions Research Corporation and the hospital are continuing jointly to develop the software, to improve their performance. In particular, staff would like the robots to be self-loading.

Later they may be joined by cousins - such as Scrubmates, under development to clean bathrooms, or Sweepmates, designed to clean and polish floors.

(Photograph omitted)