Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Health workers at Stanford University are acclimating to a high-tech environment at one of the country's most sophisticated new hospitals, which took a decade and more than $2 billion to build.
The New Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., which opened Nov. 17, showcases the cutting edge of medical technology -- and is built to meet new seismic safety standards in California that will begin to take effect next year.
Among the futuristic amenities is a fleet of more than two dozen robots. Most of them perform rudimentary tasks and are preprogrammed to travel along hospital routes. Others work in the pharmacy.
Twenty-three are called TUG courier robots and the job of most of them is to haul supplies.
"We're automating the heavy movement across long distances to protect our employees," said Shaheed Hickman, the hospital's supply chain manager.
"The TUGs will provide basically back-of-the-house support for our staff, as well as our clinicians by showing we are getting the right items to the hospital for patient care," said Almeda McLaren, the hospital's director of regional supply chain services.
The robots carry medical supplies, waste, food trays, small parcels and linens, after which they return to a docking station to recharge. They can operate for 10 hours with the intermittent charges.
The 4-foot-tall TUGs are designed to haul up to 1,400 pounds and navigate the 824,000-square-foot hospital via lasers and GPS coordinates. The bots visualize a 3D map to "see" and avoid obstacles while they're tracked by human staffers in real time.
Officials say the robots communicate wirelessly, can open and close sensor-equipped doors, are programmed to halt if they run into something and move to the side of the hallway if an alarm goes off.
So far, they transport only a limited range of items and are not intended to replace human staffers. The hospital said, in fact, the supply chain that operates the TUGs is adding staff -- and the fleet size and robots' responsibilities will likely increase.
"We're still in the opening phase of the hospital, so once it's stabilized, I'm quite sure other departments will see a possible need to utilize the TUGs -- and then we will take it on a case-by-case basis," McLaren said.
In its pharmacy, the hospital has three machines of a different class -- "BoxPicker" robots. They can store $5 million worth of medications and distribute prescription drug orders with their mechanical arms. They work with a third robot -- a PillPick -- that counts bulk medications and sends them to pharmacists in bar-coded packets.
"It's very accurate -- like 99.9 percent," said pharmacy manager Douglas Del Paggio.
The drug bots can package 1,000 doses an hour, which the hospital says is 10 times quicker than a human pharmacy technician.
New safety requirements
Stanford Health Care Vice President and Chief of Applications Gary Fritz said the new technologies increase efficiency and relieve existing staff from performing certain tasks. He said the robots pick up a lot of the menial work so human staff can maximize their value.
"The real value of [human] technicians comes when they use their clinical knowledge to care for patients, not count pills," Fritz said. "Routine activities like pushing a cart for 30 minutes in each direction isn't really job enriching.
"What is enriching is if those people can talk to patients or spend time figuring out how to get better supplies."
The new hospital was built, officials said, to "accommodate the most advanced medical technology and increase capacity for patients." It's also a response to California's new seismic safety standards, which require all hospitals be able to withstand collapse during a major earthquake.
After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which damaged nearly a dozen hospitals, the state adopted a law to make hospitals more resilient. It mandates hospitals reduce their buildings' risk of collapse by 2020 -- and the facilities must be able to remain operational after a major quake by 2030.
Earlier this year, the Rand Corp. said in an analysis that all California hospitals will need to spend $34 billion to $143 billion to meet the 2030 mandate.
The new Stanford facility, which was built with more than $650 million in locally donated funding, is one of several new hospitals built to meet the seismic standards. A combination of hospital funds, private donations and "leading Silicon Valley companies" paid for the $2 billion project.