The robot smiles broadly when it isn’t carrying a load, but as the load gets heavy, it starts to look downcast. Electronic sweat drops even appear on its monitor, designed in the style of a cartoon face.
Meet ORber, a medical transport robot created through collaboration between Taiwanese ICT company BenQ and the Yuanlin Christian Hospital, a branch of the Changhua Christian Hospital. It’s one of many new smart technologies that the hospital is creating – with support from the Ministry of Health and Welfare – toward the objective of making health services in Taiwan safer and more efficient.
The autonomous ORber can carry up to 150 kilograms of contaminated surgical materials and supplies out of an operating room for sterilization or disposal once a surgical procedure is completed. By using a robot, hospitals can reduce the risk of staff injuries or cross-infection while pushing a trolley full of surgical waste, says Lee Kwo-whei, superintendent at the Yuanlin Christian Hospital.
The pioneering smart hospital located in heavily rural Changhua County is Lee’s brainchild. With a mantra of “clean, smart and green,” it focuses on emergency and critical care in a part of Taiwan where emergency resources are scarce. The hospital opened in 2015, and with nearly 500 beds, 70 attending doctors, and more than 500 nurses, it can treat major traumas. It also offers emergency and inpatient treatment for children and various gynecological services.
“From the beginning, we discussed with the architect about lots of smart designs for the hospital,” Lee says. The building’s design was awarded “gold honors” in 2015 under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. The hospital then obtained the “Green Building Gold Label” by Taiwan’s Ministry of Interior in 2017, making it the first integrated medical building in the nation to possess the two certifications.
Some of the building’s innovative energy-saving interior designs seem like common-sense planning, such as a section that groups together an intensive-care unit, cardiac catheterization operating rooms, other operating rooms, and recovery rooms, each with its own visitors’ waiting room. Placing these facilities so close to one another saves healthcare workers’ time and energy.
In other Taiwanese hospitals, these four units tend to be in separate areas, each with its own waiting room, Lee says. To reach recovery rooms, as a result, post-surgery patients must regularly be pushed on a gurney through public areas. The Yuanlin design eliminates that exposure by providing private corridors to connect the four areas. Visitors in the waiting rooms are thus far less likely to be vulnerable to infection.
At the Dentistry Department, a rail system attached to the ceiling transfers contaminated dental instruments to the cleaning and sterilization room in another move to save manpower.
Lee also points to the nanotechnology coating used for the water and air-conditioning filters. “When the air and water flow through filters, there are lots of tiny particles with spikes,” he says. “They rupture the cell wall membrane of the bacteria and viruses.”
Physically preventing the spread of germs is more efficient than trying to kill them with chemical detergents, Lee notes. He says he hopes to introduce this technology – first used in the international airport and hospitals in Singapore – to other Taiwanese medical institutions.
Outpatient registration, including payment of fees, is being expedited by technology in the form of automatic registration machines. And hospital visitors can get a basic health check at a “vital signs measuring kiosk.” After they insert their National Health Insurance identification cards, their body temperature, height, weight, and blood pressure will be measured and automatically uploaded into the hospital’s system. Besides avoiding the use of paper, Lee notes, this invention is particularly helpful in Taiwan where doctors generally see more patients than in the West and may not have time to take every patient’s blood pressure.
The hospital also contains smart patient rooms with such solutions as solutions as bedside touchscreen patient-education systems, as well as nursing stations equipped with electronic whiteboards. A wireless vital-signs monitoring system sends a patient’s vital signs – including respiration, heart rate, and blood oxygen – to the monitor at the nursing station and to the primary nurses’ work cellphones, enabling them to respond quickly if needed.
Lee reports that the hospital has also developed smart phone-apps for long-distance monitoring of some patient conditions, saving time for both patients and doctors as patients can stay at home and be called back to the hospital only if their situations look dangerous.
Taiwan’s ICT companies, keen to move out of basic contract-electronics manufacturing, frequently approach Lee to discuss ideas for joint projects. “The big IT companies want to jump into the healthcare pond,” he says.
However, Lee and colleague Nina Kao, CEO of the Changhua Christian Hospital’s Overseas Medical Mission Center, note that the broadened usage of technology in the hospital does not minimize the need for a human touch in treating the ill. Technology is used mainly to reduce transportation time and improve auditing features, giving doctors more time for patients, they explain.