The Institute of Medicine estimates that tens of thousands of Americans die needlessly every year from avoidable medical errors, including infections acquired during surgery. GE and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have now teamed to change it. They will jointly develop an “intelligent” system using robots, computer vision and automatic identification technologies like RFID tags to sort, sterilize and deliver surgical tools. The system could save lives, not to mention costs.
Some of the technologies behind the system have been used to automate manufacturing lines for many years. But their application in the surgery environment is new. “We believe that in combination with a new level of intelligence, they can help make operating rooms run more efficiently, lead to better patient outcomes, and save millions of dollars in healthcare costs,” says Lynn DeRose, a principal investigator and auto-ID expert in the Distributed Intelligent Systems Lab at GE Global Research.
DeRose says that scalpels, clamps and other tools will bear a unique ID that the intelligent robotic system can recognize. The system will be designed to perform a series of tasks, from the kitting of surgical tools, movement through sterile processing and location tracking during transportation to and from the operating theater. The goal: deliver the right sterilized tools in the right place, at the right time, and in the right order.
It won’t be easy. DeRose says that perhaps her biggest will be to make the robotic system “intelligent enough” to be able to maneuver and manipulate a diverse set of surgical implements. “Even maneuvering something as simple as a pair of scissors requires lengthy coded instructions for a robot,” she says.
A system like this is long overdue. Staff in many hospitals still inspect, wash and count tools by hand, a technique that is inefficient and potentially fraught with errors that can lead to critical delays and patient harm. An automated robotic system could cut surgical infections, streamline surgery scheduling, and improve efficiency. “According to experts in the field, the surgical operation and recovery setting is considered the fastest growing and most resource intensive section of the hospital, accounting for approximately 30 to 50 percent of a hospital’s budget,” DeRose says. “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.”
As part of the two-year $2.5 million project, the designers will evaluate the system at a VA hospital.