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The robot will see you now: how machines could reshape post-pandemic medicine

BMJ 2021; 373 doi: (Published 28 April 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;373:n454
  1. Jo Best, freelance writer
  1. London, UK

With covid-19 causing growing waiting lists and ongoing staff shortages, greater use of robotics in secondary care and beyond might offer a way of dealing with the pressures facing the NHS in a post-pandemic world. Jo Best reports

During the early days of the pandemic, Bristol’s Southmead Hospital tested communication robots. Typically, these are “telepresence units”: a small screen and webcam mounted on a pillar that can be driven around a hospital remotely. Such robots enable remote communication—for example, between patients in intensive care and relatives who can’t be by their bedside because of covid-19, or between a patient on the ward and a doctor who may be at home shielding.

“These communication robots feel like a bit of the covid legacy,” said Tim Whittlestone, North Bristol NHS Trust’s deputy medical director. “Covid suddenly gives you a need for this technology.

“They’re not just helpful because of the pandemic, they’re helpful for staff too. When you have a limited number of doctors and nurses, they allow a degree of flexibility for people to do ward rounds remotely, and without their PPE [personal protective equipment] on, or to work from a more comfortable setting, or from home if they’re isolating.”

The robots were tested in a hospital setting in case they were needed in caring for dying patients at Bristol’s Nightingale hospital. In the end, they weren’t deployed because patients with covid-19 weren’t transferred there, but such robots might be used in the health service in future in areas with shortages of staff on site, beyond the context of the pandemic.

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