Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are looking to aid healthcare workers caring for patients with Ebola and other infectious diseases through a grant from the National Sciences Foundation.
WPI is working on two projects. The first will address working safety in infectious diseases such as Ebola. They are building robots that will help healthcare workers doff and don their personal protective equipment (PPE).
Michael A. Gennert, director of Robotics Engineering and professor of Computer Science at MPI explained how complicated and risky that procedure can be.
The PPE is very cumbersome to get in and out of. That’s because you cannot touch any part of the suit. “All it takes is one virus particle to get infected,” Gennert said.
How do you avoid touching the PPE when taking it off? Well, you have to be assisted by another person. Each layer of clothing that is peeled off must be disinfected with bleach. Each layer of clothing of the person assisting you must also be disinfected. It’s a slow, time-consuming process. Time that could be better served somewhere else.
Doffing and donning their PPE isn’t an ordeal the healthcare worker has only to perform at the start of their shift and the end of their shift. These suits are hot, so clinicians can only spend about two hours working with patients. Valuable time is spent getting gear on and off instead of assisting patients.
This is where WPI’s robot comes in. Instead of taking up the time of a clinician that could be helping patients, the robot can help get the healthcare worker in and out of their PPE. Using the robot saves time because only the robot’s “gripper” needs to be disinfected. It reduces exposure to the virus by taking one person out of the equation and breaking the chain of infection.
“It also means you are not using a very highly trained, very expensive, very fragile human to help you take your gloves and apparel off, you’re using a robot. It let’s medical personnel spend their efforts more productively, not watching each other take their garments off and on,” Gennert said.
Another project they are working on is how they can engineer “smart” mobile treatment tents. They are calling it a medical Cyber-Physical System (CPS) and it will incorporate smart technologies to improve the delivery of care, and decrease the risk of contamination for patients and medical personnel.
Gennert said that anything you can do to make healthcare workers’ jobs easier in this environment is a huge advantage. WPI is looking to incorporate cameras into the tent to monitor patients. This way, medical staff can observe the patients without having to get all suited up. WPI is also looking at ways robots can assist in the treatment of patients. A robot could deliver food, water, and medicines.
Robots will not be replacing the healthcare workers. Robots will be used to offload simple tasks so that medical personnel are freed up to do what only they can do. Deliver quality medical care. But in order for these robots to be accepted by the medical personnel they are working alongside, they must be helpful and not get in the way.
We’re talking about a lot of very high-tech equipment being used in places that in most cases do not have electricity and reliable Internet access. WIP researchers are taking that into consideration but do not feel that will be a huge obstacle. Generators deliver power and networks are set up to access the Internet. While it is another task, Gennert said it’s doable.
The other thing to think about is how patients will react to robots bringing them medication, food and water. Many of the people in the areas where the robots will be deployed have never dealt with technology at this level.
Gennert said, “Well, it had better be a pretty friendly robot.” He also pointed out that all the high-tech gear in the tents and the doctors dressed up in their PPE look pretty foreign and frightening already.
While the reception of the robot is something that needs to be considered, Gennert feels that the people and the culture will adapt over time. They’ve already had quite a bit of experience adopting safer practices especially around how they take care of deceased persons, how they mourn, and how they carry out their burial ceremonies.
As they build their robots, being accepted by patients and their families is a high priority, but the No. 1 priority is making it useable for the healthcare workers.
This project is a case where the researchers hope the outbreak will be contained before they are finished, but because of their work, they will be ready for whatever comes next.
“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t even have asked, could you use a robot to treat disease outbreaks?”, Gennert said. “We’ve opened up a whole new field of emergency response for robotics where the possibilities exist to use these technologies to help these people. Robots are not just in the factories making things or the battle zone for defense, but also in the hospitals or even emergencies where people cannot go, but robots can. They’re not there yet, but they will be soon.”
Traci Browne is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing, engineering and science. You can find out more about her at www.TraciBrowne.com.