Faculty and staff members from Texas A&M and the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, as well as other universities in the country, are researching using robots to improve the safety of health care workers.

Robin Murphy, chair of the Robotics for Infectious Diseases group, has been helping in the aftermath of disasters since 1995 and has been in 29 disasters where she helped introduce robots to the situations, she said.

During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, Murphy, a Raytheon professor of computer science at A&M, was on the team with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, while Jason Moats, TEEX associate division director for emergency services training, was on the Ebola Task Force in Dallas.

“Well, fast forward, here we are one more time,” Murphy said. “… It’s kind of like, I got the band back together.”

The group reconvened with representatives from other academic institutions in February.

The goal is not to replace doctors, nurses or any other health care worker, but to reduce those workers’ risk of contracting infectious diseases.

“There’s a lot of times that people come in contact with potentially infected people, and so every time you do that as a nurse or a doctor or paramedic or a nursing assistant in the hospital, there are a lot of times where you’re put at risk of catching the disease,” Moats said. In addition, they are also going through personal protective equipment as they visit patients.

Some examples they have looked at are using drones to enforce quarantine and shelter in place orders, ground robots to disinfect hospital rooms and robot trash cans that would reduce the risk of someone accidentally being poked with a needle that is sticking out of the bag. None of those are “sexy” uses for robots, Murphy said, but they are what emergency managers and public health workers are interested in exploring.

When it comes to disinfecting rooms, she said, “robots can do it much more effectively than people can, and they literally can’t get enough people to do that kind of job. Same thing with meals. You’re not replacing a nurse, you’re freeing up time for the nurse to do more of what they consider important.”

In the future, there could be robots that can get patient’s vitals or serve as a camera for the nurses or doctor to see and talk to the patient without being in the room as often.

“It didn’t replace the health care worker, but it reduced their exposure,” she said.

It also helps handle the surge, she said, because it allows nurses and doctors to provide more compassionate care if robots are there to help.

Rather than something that can be implemented in five years or more, she said, it is something that can be done tomorrow.

“The robots that appear to be being used most successfully already exist and already were available commercially,” she said.

Implementing the technology on a wide scale can be difficult, Moats said, because the needs and priorities of each community is different and there would need to be agreed-upon policies and procedures.

Moats said he is seeing people be more open to the idea of implementing technology into health care or at least see its application.

“Where I think the rubber really meets the road on this is that we have got to figure out how to include these things into everyday opportunities,” he said. If the technology is used only when there is a pandemic, that could be once every five years or once every 30 years. “… Looking for the ways to bring this technology into everyday operations in the hospital, at home, at the store, that’s how we get it to be widespread.”

Robotics for Infectious Diseases has hosted an interview series with public health representatives about how they could use robots, and in the next couple weeks, Murphy said, they expect to start a second series that will talk with roboticists about what they can and do provide.

The purpose, Moats said, is to find out what it might look like and how they might prepare people to use it.

With experience as an EMT, a firefighter and an emergency manager, he said, “What we talk about is minimizing the risk. … There’s always risk, but there’s minimized risk.” That protection can come in the form of time, distance or shielding or a combination of those three.

For more information about Robotics for Infectious Disease or the interview series, go to roboticsforinfectiousdiseases.org/index.html.

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