The Automation Of Healthcare Continues – Robot System To Sterilize Surgical Tools

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Source: GE Global Research

Hospitals are not the cleanest of places. Even in the operating room where the greatest care is taken to create a sterile environment, too often the infectious culprits bacteria, viruses and even fungus are stubbornly present and infect patients under the knife. Today surgical tools are inspected, sterilized and counted by hand and by multiple individuals. It’s an inefficient process that carries a high risk for error. General Electric is trying to streamline surgical tool care in hospitals by taking humans out of the equation and letting a robot do the dirty work.

An infection occurs in 1 to 3 surgery patients out of a hundred. While efforts are constant to minimize surgical site infections – improved operating room ventilation, improved sterilization methods, the use of antimicrobials – they are still the most common type of healthcare-associated infections, accounting for approximately 31 percent of infections contracted by hospitalized patients. Of the 300,000 people that contract surgical site infections each year, about 3 percent will die. And for the 97 percent that survives, an infection can extend hospital stays and inflate medical bills by thousands of dollars.

Surgical site infections remain a problem in operating rooms, due in part to the labor intensive and error prone job of sterilizing and tracking the large number of instruments. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

To help fight infections, the research arm at General Electric, GE Global Research, recently announced their plans to develop a robotic surgical tool sterilization process. Each hospital has thousands of surgical tools that need to be tracked and cared for on a daily basis. Cleaning and organizing them is labor intensive and requires the coordination of multiple hospital employees. By letting a robot locate, sterilize, sort and deliver the surgical tools without human supervision, GE aims to create a more efficient system. Automating the tool care process, the company says, will increase cost performance, save time from kit assembly errors, and increase patient safety in part by reducing surgical infections. Unlike their human counterparts, a robot will commit less errors while performing what can easily become a tedious job. In addition, more skilled workers can be freed up to do other tasks.

The robot will use RFID tags to identify and keep track of the scalpels, clamps and other tools it sterilizes. The tags will also identify operating rooms to ensure the instruments end up where they’re supposed to. Later on GE plans on incorporating more advanced technologies like visual pattern recognition for its instrument and operating room verification.

The robot is still in the development stage. But as Lynn DeRose, a Principal Investigator at the Distributed Intelligent Systems Lab at GE Global Research, explained in a press release, the time is ripe for finding ways to automate the surgery room: “...the surgical operation and recovery setting is considered the fastest growing and most resource intensive section of the hospital, accounting for approximately 30 - 50 percent of the hospital’s budget. Simply put, the operating theater is the single largest contributor to a facility’s bottom line. Any gains in efficiency that lead to more revenue being generated will be felt in a big way.”

Dr. DeRose discusses the robot further in the following video.

The project will cost $2.5M and is expected to be completed in two years, at which time the system will be tested at a VA hospital yet to be determined.

Healthcare-associated infections remain a major health concern. In the United States about 1 out of every 20 people who are hospitalized with contract an HAI. In 2002, HAIs affected 1.7 million Americans. In 2009, HAIs cost the US hospitals around $30 billion. As surgical site infections account for a large chunk of this, any measures to reduce them will not only help the bottom lines of both hospital and patient, it’ll also save lives.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • Mycroft February 9, 2013 on 1:00 pm

    I don’t understand why it’s going to take two years. They need to put someone from silicon valley in charge. :-/

  • Drazil February 11, 2013 on 8:08 am

    why do so many things cost so much money?
    why do great things basically Always have to be about money?
    things like this can be a life saver..and all they care about is money -.v.-
    money isn’t everything..well to me it isn’t (never had an interest in money)

    • Mycroft Drazil February 11, 2013 on 8:24 am

      Because, for some strange reason, most people don’t want to work without getting paid. Drazil, you are obviously an exception. Are you on the barter system?

      Capitalism is the best system found so far. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than any other.

      • Drazil Mycroft February 11, 2013 on 8:48 am

        i know nothing of what a barter system is
        all i know is i have always been one that likes to help others
        (even old people with things they like to have done)
        i help others for very little no matter how hard it is (as long as i don’t get tired)
        but mostly just accept the money if it’s offered to me for my services
        but mostly sometimes for nothing ^^ (i just love being a community helper)

        • Drazil Drazil February 11, 2013 on 9:57 am

          basically making people happy is payment for me
          (if they are happy..i am happy)

    • Che Mort Drazil May 20, 2013 on 2:24 pm

      First to have a mission one needs a margin. Without capital (savings) no work can be performed just as you can’t run your computer without electricity. Two, all inventions begin their life as very expensive at the top of the asymptote. As the economy of scale increases the price drops down the asymptote toward cheaper and sometimes even free. Desk tops began their life costing about $25K, dropped to $5K and then dropped to $400, all that in 25-30 years. Every product goes through this very process unless interfered with. The best way to make it cheaper is to allow the market forces to do so by commoditizing the product.

  • Drazil February 11, 2013 on 11:15 am

    i am truly sorry
    (i am not trying to spam…just love talking..and this has no edit option to just add)
    but isn’t there a cheaper way to do this instead of that expensive robot that only does that?
    maybe some kind of special glasses the cleaners can wear
    glasses that would let them see there is no problems and that they are perfectly clean tools
    and with that a lot more Better cleaning could be done Everywhere (instead of just tools)

    • Greendogo Drazil February 14, 2013 on 10:26 am

      The more work done by machine, the cheaper things will be, because they won’t need to pay wages for the people who used to clean.

      I’d expect an automated cleaning system would pay for itself fairly quickly, anyway. So why not?

  • Max Hodges February 19, 2013 on 3:39 am

    been using these in Japan for at least 7 years. (wife is a surgical assistant here and worked at Tokyo University Hospital with a robot like this everyday)