This 5G Smart Hospital in Thailand uses robotics to keep staff safe, reduce workload

Click here to read part one of our interview with Siriraj Hospital, which explores how they use artificial intelligence effectively to improve their processes and enhance productivity. While the first robots in […]

Click here to read part one of our interview with Siriraj Hospital, which explores how they use artificial intelligence effectively to improve their processes and enhance productivity.

While the first robots in healthcare emerged more than 30 years ago, in the 1980s, the industry has yet to fully embrace the technology, despite the significant advances made in the field.

Concerns over cost, reliability, and legal implications are just some of the common reasons that make hospitals think twice about implementing robotic technology at their facilities.

The reluctance to utilise robotics is particularly prevalent in Southeast Asia, given that the majority of healthcare providers in the region are still in the nascent stages of their digital transformation – a journey which many only undertook in the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while it might seem like a pipe dream for many hospitals for now, robotics and automations will likely play a huge part in the future of healthcare.

And in order to get a glimpse at what this future would look like, one need only turn to Thailand’s Siriraj Hospital – the first 5G smart hospital in Southeast Asia.

As part of their “Siriraj World Class 5G Smart Hospital” project – which was officially launched in December last year – the hospital has equipped themselves with modern robotic technologies that bring about a whole suite of benefits, including enhancing safety standards, reducing staff workload, and improving patient outcomes.

Apart from boasting a renowned robotic surgery department, Siriraj also utilised robotics and automation as part of their infection control measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Patients that were suspected to have COVID-19, for example, would be sent to Siriraj’s ARI (acute respiratory infection) Clinic, which is equipped with tele-screening technology that allows nurses to register and triage patients remotely.

The assistant director of Siriraj Hospital, Dr Sichon Luerithiphong, told Hospital Management Asia (HMA): “We set up several computers outside of the clinic, and so when the patient wants to do the registration, all they need to do is show their ID to the nurse on the screen.

“Our nurse will then take a screenshot and use information to retrieve previous medical records from our database, as well as find out the medical history and symptoms of the patient. All the while, the patient waits outside, while our staff remains safe and isolated in the clinic. Throughout the entire process, there is minimal direct contact between our staff and the patients. This greatly minimises the risk of cross-infection within the hospital.”

Once it is time to see the doctor, the patient will have their temperature taken by a contactless, automated thermometer before entering the clinic for consultation with the doctors.

Once the consultation is over, the patient will walk back out of the clinic and into the waiting area. Meanwhile, the doctor will prepare the relevant documents for the patient – such as their medical certificate and prescription – and place it on a robot that will deliver it to the nurse at the registration counter.

These documents are then transferred to another robot – one that is equipped with a screen – that will deliver it to the patient in the waiting area. There, the patient will collect their documents from the robot, while a nurse will provide further instructions and information remotely via the attached screen.

Elaborating on how Siriraj Hospital was able to successfully implement robotics and automation at the ARI clinic, Dr Luerithiphong said: “COVID-19 hit Thailand very hard and fast, and so we didn’t have adequate time to prepare our resources, or allocate any specific budget to buy new technology for the pandemic. With supplies, such as PPEs, running short, we had to think out of the box and use every available technology at our disposal to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.

“So, we used computers that already had remote communication technology. We also reprogrammed the robots that we had to adapt it for our needs during the pandemic, which was largely to minimise contact between our staff and COVID-19 patients, so as to keep them safe.

“Of course, taking care of patients is our main responsibility. However, taking care of our own staff is also a key priority for us. Therefore, staff well-being and satisfaction are top agendas at Siriraj Hospital”

Dr Luerithiphong also revealed that Siriraj are in the midst of trialling the use of unmanned robotic vehicles to deliver medication from the inventory building to dispensing units within the hospital.

While the initiative is still in its pilot phase – the first unmanned vehicle is currently mapping out the ideal delivery routes within the hospital – it is expected to officially launch soon, with another four of such vehicles being welcomed to Siriraj later this month.

“The technology is similar to the one being used for food deliveries in certain parts of China and the US,” said Dr Luerithiphong. “These unmanned vehicles travel along a planned route to deliver medication between buildings. It is also very safe because it has censors around it which detects movement, so it will not crash into people.

“Unlike previously, when these tasks were done manually by our staff, these vehicles can do the job 24/7. In addition, it helps to reduce the workload on our staff, who can now focus on other aspects of their job.”

Another key department in which Siriraj heavily utilises robotics is their dispensary, which has been completely automated.

Utilising RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology, the robotic pharmacy is able to automatically pack, retrieve and deliver the medication to the hospital’s pharmacists, who will then hand it over to the patient.

Likening the whole process to using a vending machine, Dr Luerithiphong extolled the benefits of this technology, as he said: “Firstly, this technology reduces the potential for error, as everything is mechanical and automated. Having said that, our pharmacists will still do a final check before dispensing the medication.

“Secondly, after we develop another unit of robotic dispensary, we will then reach the economy of scale. Therefore, we will not need as many staff to work in the dispensing unit, while our pharmacists are able to get better working quality, as they do not need to walk around looking for the right medication. Lastly, with this these automations, it has helped to reduce the time that patients spend waiting for their medication.”

These innovative robotic technologies and automations are, however, just the tip of the iceberg of what Siriraj hopes to ultimately achieve.

Given that their goal is to establish themselves as one of the most modern, leading hospitals in the Southeast Asia region, Dr Luerithiphong believes Siriraj will have to continue to look at implementing newer and better technologies down the line.

He said: “We already have good strength in medical care, and have quality medical staff…now, the next step is to improve our technology and infrastructure, which is what we are currently doing.

“With 5G technology, AI and robotics in place, we are definitely in a strong position at the moment. But ultimately, we want patients to have the confidence in Siriraj Hospital to provide the best quality of care possible.”

Dr Luerithiphong  also credited the strong relationships with key partners that Siriraj Hospital has established as crucial to their success in becoming the region’s first 5G Smart Hospital.

He said: “Siriraj Hospital would have not have been able to come this far on this journey alone. The key factor that set Siriraj on the track to the success in digitalisation and transformation was, and continues to be, the collaboration with others – both public and private organisations.

“We would like to thank the Thailand Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) for allocating the budget to support the “Siriraj World Class 5G Smart Hospital” project. We also would like to thank our partners, Huawei Technologies (Thailand) Co., Ltd, H LAB Co., Ltd, BKK Management Group Co., Ltd, True Corporation Co., Ltd, Turnkey Communication Services Co., Ltd, True Digital Group Co., Ltd., Medicense Intelligence Co., Ltd., Pathology Ware International Co.,Ltd, Jump AI Co., Ltd., the Centre of Logistics Management and Healthcare Supply Chain (LogHealth), Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University and, lastly,  every staff and employee at Siriraj Hospital who have made a significant contribution to the project .”

Catch Dr Sichon Luerithiphong at HMA’s upcoming Connect Series on AI & Robotics in Hospitals on 23 March, where he will share more about Siriraj Hospital’s latest innovations. Click here for more information, and to sign up for the free online conference.