Nurse's little helper

Hospitals find robots to do the drudge work for $2.85 an hour.

By Michael Myser, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Robots aren't going to replace nurses anytime soon -- but they are starting to lighten their load. Each year, according to Pittsburgh-based robotics firm Aethon, the average 300-bed hospital spends $3 million in employee time just transporting instruments, drugs, meals, and lab specimens around the premises.

That's why Aethon has introduced a line of robots called Tug to handle such menial medical tasks -- and is poised to dominate what it sees as an untapped $2.5 billion market.

The latest version of Aethon's Tug, the T2.5, is due out this summer. Think of it as the first hospital robot with opposable thumbs: It can autonomously attach and detach itself to and from carts holding pumps, IVs, prescriptions, and linen hampers, seamlessly switching roles within the hospital supply chain. Hospital workers simply punch the required task into the Tug's docking station.

"The Tug doesn't flirt, doesn't eat, doesn't complain, and doesn't go to the gift shop," says Mark Todd, director of material management for Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., which already employs six Tugs across five departments. "And the nurses spend their time with patients, not chasing things around." With a lease price of $1,500 a month, Providence essentially pays each robot worker just $2.85 an hour.

Hospitals seem to be flocking to the bots: Aethon says its sales quadruple every year, and it landed seven new customers in the first quarter of 2007 alone. By the end of the year, the company expects about 150 hospitals to be using its Tugs.

And Aethon won't stop with hospitals. "Other industries need to move things too," says CEO Aldo Zini. Retail businesses and hotels are next in his sights, though Zini says he isn't in a hurry to abandon his original focus on health care.

No wonder: With baby boomers starting to retire in droves, U.S. hospitals are looking at a shortage of 375,000 nurses by 2020.

Analysts say hospitals have done little to alleviate the struggle of delivering materials and equipment around their facilities, tying up valuable human resources and slowing patient care.

"What I see hospitals doing most often is arguing between departments about who should be transporting the equipment or specimen," says Gloria VanMilligan, a senior consultant for health-care analyst firm Sg2. "Meanwhile, the patient's on the operating table waiting for the answer."

If robots like the Tug allow hospitals to spend more quality time on patients, or even care for additional patients, the bottom line should look a lot healthier. Top of page

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