Can robots save us from chronic healthcare shortages?

19 Nov 2020

The Akara Robotics team pose with two Stevie robots. Image:

At Future Human 2020, Dr Conor McGinn told the story of Stevie and Violet, the robots here to help our overwhelmed health services.

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In 2013, the World Health Organization noted that the world was seeing a shortage of 7.2m healthcare workers. The forecast then was that this shortage would reach almost 13m in 22 years. But this seven-year-old warning was not heeded, exasperating the downward trend, and more recent forecasts expect a worldwide shortage of 15m health workers by 2030.

The recommendations made at the WHO’s Global Forum on Human Resources for Health back in 2013 naturally focused on supporting and retaining more people in these roles, but as the situation seems ever more dire, some have proposed turning to technology for radical solutions.

But Dr Conor McGinn warns that integrating technology solutions into healthcare isn’t as simple as plug and play. “Who is responsible for the technology? Who does the software updates? What happens if something breaks? What happens if the person who’s trained to use the technology leaves the job and no one else knows how to use it? All of this means that even if the technology does exist, because it is difficult to integrate, it simply doesn’t get adopted,” he told the audience at the virtual Future Human conference in October 2020.

This is why McGinn set out to develop technology that could bridge the gap in the healthcare workforce in a way that was not only easy to use but delightful to use. Following a decade of research into robotics and artificial intelligence, McGinn and his team gave us Stevie, the social care robot.

This charming robot was an instant hit. “We started getting invited – actually, the robot started getting invited – to all kinds of events,” he joked.

Stevie’s allure is not just in his friendly interface, it’s in the core design of the system which, as McGinn described, was built “in close co-operation with the people who we wanted to see using it”.

For this particular robotic healthcare worker, that was the residents and carers in senior care facilities. The team behind Stevie worked closely with charities supporting the elderly, such as Alone, and, last year, Stevie spent four months in trial studies at senior care facilities in the UK and the US. And it was during the Washington trial that Stevie became a Time Magazine cover star.

These trials were vital to furthering Stevie’s development and drove the team’s focus on three core applications: hosting video calls, reading stories and playing music for people with cognitive impairments such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, and leading groups of residents in wellbeing activities.

“Every day for three months … Stevie used to hold court. His events became so popular that at some times we actually had to turn people away,” said McGinn.

The trials were encouraging. The team was seeing how Stevie’s abilities could free up the workers at these facilities for more one-on-one time with residents who needed it.

All was going well. The team had spun out from the research group at Adapt, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre based at Trinity College Dublin. As the start-up Akara Robotics, led by McGinn, plans were in place for further pilot programmes in the summer of 2020.

“Then Covid happened,” said McGinn.

‘Our approach to disinfection remains the same as it was before the Spanish flu pandemic’

Not only did restrictions at nursing homes make Stevie’s next pilot programmes impossible, McGinn was concerned at how lockdowns would affect the residents and carers he had dedicated his work to supporting.

“One of Stevie’s biggest benefits was that it became a catalyst for creating serendipitous interactions between groups of people. And now as nursing homes across the world went into lockdown, promoting social interactions became a pretty low priority and something that might actually be discouraged for the fear of a potential breakout,” he said.

The Akara Robotics team was also familiar with the issues infectious diseases posed to long-term care settings.

“Infections of various types routinely cause older people to become hospitalised or even worse,” said McGinn. While information spread on how to mitigate coronavirus through physical distancing, wearing face masks, and frequent hand-washing, McGinn turned his focus to another line of defence: disinfection.

“This is when we go in and we actually kill germs in the room, normally through the application of chemical agents,” he said. “This is extremely difficult to implement in nursing homes and, as we learned, also in hospitals. In fact, the techniques we use now, they haven’t changed in over 100 years. Our approach to disinfection remains the same as it was before the Spanish flu pandemic.”

Determined to bring disinfection into the 21st century, the Akara team built Violet, a robot that could autonomously navigate a room and disinfect it using ultraviolet light. A prototype was built and tested in a hospital within a matter of weeks and swab testing showed that Violet could reduce the presence of microbes to a level “as good if not better than what was being done with human cleaners”, said McGinn.

Violet 2 is currently being tested in The Midland Regional Hospital, Tullamore and McGinn said the results are “extremely promising”.

And while McGinn continues to work to bring robotic assistants to healthcare, to improve the lives of both those in need of care and the overstretched staff delivering it, he is not doing this work alone.

“I was asked last year, soon after the Time Magazine cover came out, how a small Irish team had managed to do so much and at the time I really wasn’t sure how to answer that question,” he said.

“But I do know that we’re not a small team and what we’ve created has emerged from many years of work that has involved many, many people … and that number is still growing.

“Our team is also more than just the people who’ve worked on this in Trinity and more recently in Akara. Our team comprises all of the partners, all of the organisations that have helped us over the years and at present. Our staff and these people who are working with us have made tremendous sacrifices to get us where we are and we’re just so grateful. And we’re especially grateful at the moment to the HSE and the Midlands Regional Hospital in Tullamore for all of their ongoing support and assistance over the past few months. We’re also being supported by SFI, who are enabling us to continue our research, and we’re working closely with the microbiology department in Trinity as well as colleagues in the Adapt research centre, which is allowing us to develop a system that is both effective against germs but also very, very easy to use by the people who need it most. This work also wouldn’t have been possible without support of the Digital Hub who’ve helped us enormously throughout the pandemic.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.