As a result of the novel coronavirus, governments are looking for alternatives and solutions to major equipment shortages. Supplies are strained and solutions are unclear, but certain countries, such as China, have used robots at hospitals to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Wherever you look, healthcare workers are falling ill from the virus at an elevated rate in comparison to the rest of the population and they are getting sicker than everyone else as well. In late March the WHO reported 22,000 healthcare workers have been infected, representing a little over 1 percent of cases at the time, although the WHO admits cases among healthcare workers are underreported. In Spain, that ratio is nearly 14 percent and in the Brescia province in Italy, it’s estimated to be 10-15 percent.
It might seem obvious that those who work most with the virus are at greater risk of becoming infected but how much of that is inherent occupational hazards and how much of that is a shortage of PPE? A sick healthcare worker has a cascading effect on the entire healthcare system. In the two week incubation period after contracting COVID-19, they could potentially spread the virus to colleagues and patients before becoming unavailable to work. For healthcare workers fortunate enough to remain healthy, being in this higher-risk group means they are unable to spend time with family for fear of getting them sick.
This is where robots come in. They could help with sanitation, provide accurate readings of equipment and perform other mundane tasks to eliminate the risk for a healthcare worker. PPE shortages are likely to continue, so what becomes important is finding an alternative for workers that will continuously protect them.
Demand will outstrip supply for PPE and it’s unlikely production will be able to ramp up in time to be effective. The only alternative is to reduce demand. Hospitals are doing this now by rationing supplies and re-using masks that have been sanitized with UV or heat. PPE is being consumed most when entering and exiting areas where COVID-19 patients are being kept. Ideally, staff will not remove PPE while around COVID-19 patients and won’t carry contaminated PPE throughout the rest of the hospital. Right now, staff work to reduce the number of entries and exits required by meticulously planning them. Inevitably, equipment is forgotten or, after entering the containment areas, staff are confronted with new information that changes what was needed to have been brought in.
New technologies in robotics would allow robots to perform tasks, eliminating the need for staff and reducing the amount of PPE used. Robots would help with restocking supplies (i.e. gloves), checking equipment read-outs on ventilators, clearing linens and bringing patients food. Afterwards, robots simply need to be disinfected for reuse.