Dartmouth Health implements robots to take weight off pharmaceutical staff  

By MELANIE MATTS

The Keene Sentinel

Published: 08-19-2023 8:11 PM

The staff you walk past at your local hospital could start to look different, as New Hampshire hospitals join a national trend of implementing robotic delivery methods.

Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center recently announced the addition of three high-tech and autonomous TUG robots to its staff this summer to deliver medication from its pharmacy to inpatient units in its newly opened Patient Pavilion.

The pavilion opened in April after the hospital added a multi-floor 240,000 square-foot expansion to its existing building to address the growing need for more hospital beds. The estimated number that will be added to the pavilion is 150.

Robert Maloney, director of inpatient pharmacy at Dartmouth Hitchcock, said a big reason for implementing the robots into the facility is to provide relief to hospital staff, especially pharmacy technicians who were doing hourly runs to deliver medications.

These robots are used at many facilities not just to deliver medications, but to also carry meals, linens and other sorts of medical supplies. They allow staff to focus more on patient care, according to TUG manufacturer, Aethon’s website.

“We have the opportunity to bring in these types of robots, which will replace that function so that we can have our technicians doing higher level, more complex work,” Maloney said.

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The expansion of the patient pavilion increased the ground for pharmacy technicians to cover when delivering medications.

“The geography of the patient pavilion presented a challenge for the pharmacy. It’s quite a distance away, increasing the travel time significantly for pharmacy techs who deliver medications,” said Jill Cote, DHMC’s project manager, in a recent news release announcing the robot addition.

Maloney noted that the addition of the TUG robot delivery system comes at a time when there are national hiring and labor shortages, specifically within pharmacy departments.

“We coupled that with the fact that delivering to the floor is a fairly simple kind of low-level task,” he said. “So by offloading that we allow our technicians to do, you know, compounding and the higher-level stuff that we really need them to be doing more of.”

The three robots arrived in Lebanon in June and finished up their testing and mapping phases over the last couple of weeks.

Two of the robots will do runs every hour along a “set route,” Maloney said. The third robot will be used for more urgent demands of medications that pharmacy technicians will program into the robot.

The robots travel at a speed of 30 inches per second and have a 10-hour-long battery life, according to Aethon’s website.

The robots will make their way around the patient pavilion swiftly, since they are programmed to never bump into people. Maloney said they are able to “ping” elevators to let them know what floor they are delivering to.

Once the robot, which has drawers built into it, makes it to the set delivery spot, it will alert nursing staff, after which a nurse can log into the robot with an individual access code. After, the robot will open its correlating drawer to where nurses can retrieve the correct medication.

While Dartmouth Hitchcock is the first medical center in New Hampshire to incorporate TUG robots specifically, it is not the first in New Hampshire to use a robotic delivery method between onsite pharmacies and inpatient units.

Elliot Hospital in Manchester used a robotic delivery service 10 years ago and, since then, has switched to a pneumatic tube system, according to Molly Mortimer, director of Pharmacy Services at Elliot Hospital.

The pneumatic tube system dates back to the 1850s and uses compressed air to transport objects or documents through a network of tubes.

Today, the system plays a crucial role in many hospitals, connecting different hospital wards to the pharmacy department, shortening delivery time and providing relief to medical staff.

”The number of trips back and forth on any given day is very time consuming, and people are not always easy to come by, in health care fields especially,” Mortimer said. “So, you know, any ways that we can try to lessen the number of manual, physical trips is usually warranted.”

Mortimer said many patients and visitors were curious about the robots traveling the halls of Elliot Hospital during its time using robotic delivery methods.

“I think the visitors to the hospital always found the robotic delivery very novel,” she said. “We would decorate it sometimes for the holiday or the season, just to help put a smile on people’s faces.”

Using robots for delivery purposes, albeit, comes with its set of challenges.

One of the issues Elliot Hospital faced during its time using a robotic delivery system was tracking down the robot, Mortimer said. She believes as software has evolved, it may now be able to address some of the concerns that existed previously.

Mortimer said that both the systems, robotic delivery and pneumatic tubes, require people on either end, whether it’s to stock the robot with medication or to retrieve the delivery.

“So any medication products that are traveling, either through a robotic delivery system or with the people carriers, we have to make sure that there’s safety and security,” she said, “and that it also happens within a timely fashion.”

TUG robots went live at Dartmouth Hitchcock two weeks ago and are working well, according to Maloney.

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