Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Drive Healthcare Efficiency and Resilience

Robotics and AI can help managers reduce costs and risk, improve operational efficiency and address tough challenges.

By Doug King and Sandesh Jagdev, Contributing Writers

Healthcare providers have learned over the past few years that there is no perfect defense against the unforeseeable. The COVID-19 pandemic was just the first in a string of calamities that precipitated geopolitical tensions, macroeconomic headwinds, labor challenges and supply chain bottlenecks. 

While no one could have fully prepared for this prolonged volatility and uncertainty, healthcare facilities managers in particular must be agile and adaptable in the face of whatever tomorrow brings. 

The secret to combating unpredictability in healthcare facilities management is to strip as much of it out of daily operations as possible. Consistency, scalability and reliability enable fast acclimatization to any crisis. By leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to automate essential healthcare operations, hospitals, doctor’s offices and other healthcare facilities can achieve the flexibility to seamlessly handle the unpredictable. 

Here are five ways robotics and AI can help managers reduce costs and risk, improve operational efficiency and address challenges once considered intractable. 

Internal transportation of materials 

Healthcare facilities can use transportation robots to transport everything from clean supplies and medications to soiled linens and laboratory specimens. One type of apparatus, autonomous mobile robots (AMR), uses sensors, AI, machine learning and computing to define its own path and move without external guidance infrastructure or human controllers. 

Their ability to navigate around personnel and structures safely allows AMRs to carry out assigned tasks more consistently, accurately and reliably than humans can, eliminating waste of resources and motion. AMR systems are also infinitely scalable, so managers can increase capacity as needed by deploying additional units. 

Quality control 

Ensuring the safety and quality of medical goods and services can be a matter of life and death. By monitoring and verifying the expiration dates, condition and origins of medical products, AI can automate and streamline one of the most crucial functions in healthcare. 

For example, AI can track the temperature of blood, organs and vaccines and notify staff if conditions fall outside of required parameters. AI also can detect damaged or counterfeit products and run non-stop. It does not get fatigued or distracted and is less prone to errors than people. AI can also manage the monitoring of key performance indicators. 

Infusing quality control practices with AI can increase productivity, reduce liability, ensure regulatory compliance and improve patient outcomes, all of which reduce costs and improve long-term quality. 

Environmental disinfection 

One in 31 hospital patients has a healthcare-acquired infection (HAI) at any given time, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HAIs result in tens of thousands of deaths annually and cost the healthcare system billions of dollars. One way to reduce the incidence of these infections is to more thoroughly clean rooms after patients have been discharged or transferred. 

Environmental disinfection robots employ two approaches – UV-C light and hydrogen peroxide vapor – to eliminate pathogens on surfaces and in the air. While these robots cannot entirely replace cleaning carried out humans, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is continuing to lower reimbursements for patient readmissions, so any steps that can be taken to decrease HAIs must be considered. Environmental disinfection robots can also help protect personnel from acquiring infections, reducing lost work time. Another way to reduce HAIs is by using powered collection systems to move soiled materials through sealed interstitial spaces. 

Demand forecasting 

One major challenge facing healthcare facilities is accurately predicting demand for medical supplies. Failing to maintain enough stock can result in shortages of critical supplies, while overstocking can lead to poor spending efficiency and waste due to expired foodstuffs, medicines and other perishables. 

Managers can use AI to address this challenge by facilitating automated inventory management and replenishment of supplies. With AI-infused quality control systems, sensors and scanners, managers can use RFID tags and other technologies to provide real-time inventory data and automatically reorder supplies once a set threshold is reached. 

AI-infused supply chain management systems also can analyze purchasing data to reduce costs and improve procurement processes. All of this adds up to increased operational efficiency, reduced waste and lower costs, and improved patient outcomes. 

The potential of social robots 

At the intersection of AI and robotics sit social robots, which are mobile units that can support healthcare delivery from patient intake to patient closeout. Social robots soon will greet visitors, keep tabs on patients and handle knowledge management – the process of capturing, distributing and effectively using information. 

These systems will be able to check information they gather from patients against information from other sources like the CDC’s Health Alert Network, scientific journals, anonymized patient data and smart building management systems. These robots will have a substantial impact on healthcare activities, including triage, operating room scheduling, ailment diagnosis and detecting trends in populations. 

AI and robotics advances promise to transform the way healthcare facilities operate. The emergence of generative AI alone is estimated to unlock $1 trillion of improvement potential in the industry, according to McKinsey. Robots already are moving materials in facilities safely and efficiently and reducing HAIs, one of the biggest contributors to poor patient outcomes. 

AI is supporting doctors and nurses by ensuring they have critical medicines and supplies to treat patients, and it is tracking the safety and expiration date of materials. Meanwhile, recent leaps in the evolution of conversational AI will change the role of robots in healthcare from primarily behind-the-scenes to front-of-house. 

Given the changing dynamics of the North American workforce, AI, robotics and automation will be more important than ever. Planning for workforce shortages will help reduce wage inflation and labor costs, as logistics automation can enhance the human work force with value-add logistical activities, such as quality control, and take over the more routine busywork that falls into the five Ds of automation qualifiers: dirty, dull, dangerous, difficult and dear. 

These innovative solutions can help healthcare managers achieve the consistency, scalability and reliability they need to navigate the next calamity or opportunity. In fact, the extent to which a healthcare organization embraces AI and robotics now might be the deciding factor in how it fares during the next wave of global uncertainty. 

Doug King is vice president and national healthcare sector lead at Project Management Advisors Inc. Sandesh Jagdev is founding principal and CEO of Logimaxx Inc. 

January 8, 2024

Topic Area: Information Technology , Maintenance and Operations

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