Patients like robots for care delivery, MIT and BWH researchers find

A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open found that most participants believed that using a robotic system for facilitating healthcare tasks is acceptable.  

Researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital first conducted an online survey of around 1,000 people asking about the acceptability of robots in healthcare.  

Next, they tested one of their robots – a doglike robot developed by Boston Dynamics – in the emergency department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital last spring.  

“We’re actively working on robots that can help provide care to maximize the safety of both the patient and the healthcare workforce,” said MIT assistant professor Giovanni Traverso, who was the senior author of the study, in a statement.   

“The results of this study give us some confidence that people are ready and willing to engage with us on those fronts,” he said.


Automating tasks can become even more important at a time when physical distancing for safety reasons is still prioritized.  

After the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, the research team worked with Boston Dynamics to create a mobile robot that could interact with patients as they waited in the ED. The robots’ sensors could measure vital signs such as skin temperature, breathing rate, pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation, as well as carry an iPad that allowed for remote video communication with a provider.

However, explained the researchers, they wanted to ensure patients would be open to interacting with the robots.  

“Often as engineers, we think about different solutions, but sometimes they may not be adopted because people are not fully accepting of them,” said Traverso. 

“In this study we were trying to tease that out and understand if the population is receptive to a solution like this one,” he added.

The online survey found that the majority of participants believed a robotic system would be useful for a variety of healthcare tasks, including facilitating telehealth interviews, acquiring vital signs and turning a patient in bed. Nearly half of the participants said it would be useful for obtaining nasal or oral swabs, and about 40% said it would be useful for placing an intravenous catheter or for performing phlebotomy.  

When researchers used one of their robots – nicknamed “Dr. Spot” – in the emergency department to interview 41 patients about their symptoms via video connection, more than 90% of participants reported that they were satisfied with the system.  

“Minimizing human contact with individuals who have COVID-19 but are otherwise healthy may reduce the risk of in-hospital disease transmission and enable health care professionals at high risk of infection to safely interact with patients through teletriage,” wrote researchers in the study.  


Medical robots have been making increasing appearances in health systems worldwide, with a Bahrain COVID-19 isolation unit deploying a trial program for three medical robots in May last year.  

“These devices will provide more protection to medical personnel and reduce the transmission of disease, as well as protect sanitation workers from constant exposure to chemicals,” explained Dr. Jameela Al Salman, an infectious and internal diseases consultant at the Salmaniya Medical Complex, at the time.   

And in Singapore, clinicians developed “SwabBot,” which allows individuals being swabbed to activate and terminate the swabbing process at will.  


“By using contactless systems to perform triage among individuals with low acuity, clinicians in the ED may be able to conserve resources by eliminating physical contact with these patients,” noted the researchers in the study.  

“In the context of regional increases in COVID-19, these incremental evaluations, which can be safely completed without the need for personal protective equipment, may help to improve the inventory of important materials in times of shortage or supply chain disruption,” they added.


Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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