Demographic shift requires large-scale robot use in hospitals

Robot Business

Mobile robot at a hospital

Demographic shift requires large-scale robot use in hospitals

#HowToRobot -
Editorial team
The growing global burden on the healthcare system is challenging hospitals to use automation to a greater extent and scale up beyond pilot projects.

Robots and automation will be needed at a much larger scale in hospitals in the coming years – to make up for the growing shortage of healthcare workers and increasing demands from an aging population.

This was one of the key takeaways from the Hospital Automation Summit 2024 – a conference bringing together hospitals, users, and suppliers of robotics and automation technology in Odense, Denmark, on 22 May 2024.

People at the conference gathered to discuss the role of robotics and automation in a healthcare system already under pressure in many countries. That role is becoming increasingly important as pressure on the system mounts in the coming years – namely for two reasons:

  1. Increasing demand: As populations are aging, the share of older generations with more chronic diseases is growing, putting further strain on the healthcare system because more people depend on its support for longer. In the U.S., for example, the number of people aged 50+ with one or more chronic diseases is estimated to increase by 99.5% from 2020 to 2050.
  2. Shortage of healthcare workers: WHO anticipates a global shortage of 10 million healthcare workers by 2030. Europe is challenged by an aging workforce and overworked staff, complaints about working conditions, and as many as 9 out of 10 nurses declaring intentions to quit their jobs. The U.S. government also expects significant staffing shortages in the healthcare sector, such as 437,000 missing nurses by 2036.

One of the hospital directors who has seen the writing on the wall is Ricco Dyhr, Director at Zealand University Hospital (ZUH) in Denmark:

“With increasing demand and fewer healthcare professionals, it’s crucial for hospitals to use automation and robotics,” he said at the conference.

Automation is helping to defuse workforce challenges by, on one hand, freeing workers to focus on more value-adding tasks while also reducing the stress and load from physically demanding work.

However, achieving this on a larger scale at hospitals remains one of the key challenges highlighted by attendees at the conference.

Large-scale use of automation is needed

Robots and automation are nothing new at hospitals. Already, some hospitals are using robots for surgical procedures, cleaning and disinfection, handling samples, rehabilitation, and transporting goods between various hospital units – to name just a few. Many hospitals have ongoing pilot projects, such as a robot-assisted ultrasound scanning of pregnant women, which was presented at the summit.

But while the number of innovation projects is growing, many are still at an early stage, waiting for broader adoption.

“There are many pilot projects and relatively few large-scale implementations of robot and automation technology at hospitals,” said Gulshan Akhtar Din, Senior Advisor at HowToRobot and panelist at the conference.

“Hospitals must overcome the barriers to using automation at a larger scale to meet the workforce challenges,” she added.

Zealand University Hospital in Denmark is one of the few hospitals that have started implementing robots at a larger scale, recently purchasing 35 mobile robots. By automating the internal transport of medical equipment, food, linen, and other goods, they free up hospital service assistants to receive and unpack the goods at the ward – a task that previously could have been done by the nurses and taking up much of their time.

“Implementing automation at the right scale and functions can provide a trickle-down effect, relieving several staff groups and helping them focus on core tasks,” Akhtar said.

In addition, reaching a certain scale is often needed to unlock good business cases, according to Mikkel Viager, Principal Advisor at HowToRobot, who participated in the conference.

“Buying just one mobile robot can be very costly compared to the benefits, as you also need to invest in all the supporting systems, IT integrations, etc., and conduct all of the preliminary analyses,” he said, commenting that the positive business cases can often be achieved at 3-5 mobile robots or more, depending on the case.

“As you scale up the number of robots, the total cost often only increases marginally compared to a much larger impact on the organization – ultimately leading to better returns for the hospital.”

Challenges to scaling up automation at hospitals

Scaling up the use of automation and robotics in hospitals does not come without challenges, however. Many of these were discussed at the conference, including possible solutions to addressing them.

Developing new automation solutions can be a long and complex process for which not every hospital has the time and resources. However, it’s not always necessary to “reinvent the wheel,” according to Lars Bech-Jørgensen, Life Science Topic Lead at the business association Danish Industry, who, at the summit, advocated for exchanging proven ideas and solutions globally instead.

The number of robot and automation suppliers to the healthcare industry has increased globally by 25% over the last ten years, reaching almost 2,000 providers according to HowToRobot’s latest market data.

“There are many capable and proven solutions available – the challenge is often identifying the ones that best match the needs of the hospital,” said Mikkel Viager, who is also a robotics engineer.

However, research presented at the conference showed that hospitals are often in the dark about what the market has to offer and rarely consult with several technology providers.

“In less than one-third of public-private innovation projects, we see that more than one supplier is consulted,” said Rikke Thorlund Haahr, Chief Consultant at the Center for Public-Private Innovation, at the conference.

She encouraged hospitals to adopt a more structured process, involving – among other things – early market dialogue with vendors.

“A structured market dialogue can help hospitals to qualify their needs and adjust their expectations of what solutions currently exist on the market,” she said.

Why staff involvement is critical to scaling automation

Technology expectations were a recurring theme at the Hospital Automation Summit – often holding the key to either success or failure according to several of the presenters.

“Unrealistic high expectations of the technology often stand in the way of successful robot implementations,” said Kristina Tornbjerg Eriksen, PhD and Research Fellow at Aalborg University, Denmark, at the conference. Having studied robot implementations at several hospitals, she found that lacking staff involvement often stood in the way of a broader implementation and acceptance of the technology.

“There seems to be a lack of awareness of the complexity of having mobile robots operate in an unstructured environment such as a hospital and the requirements for the organization to absorb it successfully,” she said.

She mentioned examples of hospital staff deliberately shutting off or sabotaging the mobile robots whenever they obstructed or delayed the staff in doing their job. Overcoming these challenges requires ensuring that the robots are implemented correctly, and that people’s expectations are adjusted accordingly. This often requires scaling not just the technical solution but also the capabilities of the organization:

“Robot technology is still new and unknown to most hospital staff, and the organization must be prepared for the change,” said Gulshan Akhtar Din, who previously oversaw the logistics at Zealand University Hospital, including planning the large-scale implementation of mobile robots.

“This means that everybody from patient-facing staff to procurement and IT departments must be equipped to deal with the new technology – and get the help they need, either in-house or from external experts,” she concludes.