Automated tool system could enhance efficiency in hospitals

Technologies used to automate manufacturing processes are to be employed in hospitals in order to track and manage surgical tools.

This is the aim of scientists at GE Global Research, who are working with GE Healthcare and the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) to develop a prototype system capable of locating, sorting, delivering, and sterilising surgical tools with little oversight.

Industrial internet, robotic systems, RFID, and computer vision will form the backbone of the automated system. Tools such as clamps and scalpels will be provided a unique ID so that they are readily identifiable by various robotic components.

The prototype system will perform tasks including kitting of surgical tools, movement throughout the sterilisation process, and transport to and from the operating theatre ensuring the correct tools are in the right place, at the right time, and in sterile and working order.

‘The technologies we’re investigating have been used to automate manufacturing processes… for years, and we believe they, in combination with a new level of intelligence, can have a substantial impact in hospitals,’ said Lynn DeRose, principal investigator and Auto-ID technology expert in the Distributed Intelligent Systems Lab at GE Global Research.

According to GE, tools are inspected, washed, and counted multiple times by hand in most US hospitals.

This process is claimed to be inefficient, fraught with errors, and could lead to critical delays and adverse patient events. According to the Institute of Medicine, between 44,000 and 98,000 patients die every year due to preventable medical errors accounting for a $12bn–$25bn (£7.6bn–£15.8bn) cost to the US healthcare system. Automating the device recognition, delivery and accounting processes is expected to significantly reduce hospital costs.

Expected benefits include increased patient safety, hospital quality and cost performance through reduction in surgical infections; increased efficiency in operating room scheduling due to increased kit accuracy and reduction in instrument count time; and increased hospital throughput from reduction of set-up and room turnaround time.

‘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 30–50 per cent of a hospital’s budget,’ said DeRose. ‘Simply put, the operating theatre 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.’

One of the biggest challenges identified for the project will be to train robots to handle and test specific implements. ‘Even manoeuvring something as simple as a pair of scissors requires lengthy coded instructions for a robot,’ DeRose added in a statement.

All technologies will be built on a common framework resulting in a system that is expected to offer greater flexibility, and easier installation and configuration for different hospital settings. Hospital personnel then will be able to customise computerised dashboards so that information relevant to their job is readily available.

It is expected that automated systems will be tested at a VA hospital once the £2.5m project is concluded.