Hospitals, clinics, providers and other end users should engage with the robot vendor closely and early on as a partner. Among other things, this allows both parties to identify the highest value applications, some of which may not have been apparent at the outset.

Interview With Martin Buehler, Vice President of Logistics Solutions, Vecna Medical

Martin Buehler, Vice President of Logistics Solutions | Vecna Medical

In light of the new efficiencies required of the healthcare industry as a result of the ACA (Affordable Care Act), what opportunities in health IT and robotics do you see? 

The ACA is a great push and a fantastic opportunity to finally bring to the healthcare sector some of the technology-enabled efficiencies that many other industries have long benefitted from.  It's really the perfect storm for Vecna's technologies in healthcare-centered automation, self-service, and robotics. The technologies for self-service for checking in, checking out, making payments, getting directions to clinics, and even taking vitals are all proven and ready to go.  Autonomous mobile robots like QC Bot are on the verge of revolutionizing hospital logistics, and are about to be adopted in large numbers. 

The resulting benefits are not just in reducing the ballooning cost of health care, but also promise to improve the patient experience, and improve patient care at the same time. 

Vecna's hospital logistics robot, QC Bot, was adapted from the Bear, a battlefield extraction robot. How did you transition knowledge between those two, seemingly disparate, areas? 

Vecna is doing precisely what the Government's SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program is designed to do. The SBIR program was established to foster innovation in small companies towards developing and commercializing successful products. This is one of the reasons I joined Vecna: we excel in aligning federal funding -- not just to jump from one federally funded research grant to another, but to actively pursue the development of successful commercial and consumer products. And that is what the field of robotics needs most at this time in order to demonstrate that robots can deliver real value. To this end we invest significant internal funds and select SBIR projects very strategically to fill technology gaps. 

The Bear robot and QC Bot, even though two couldn't be more different in looks and their 'natural habitat', actually share many basic technologies, like motion control, sensing and sensor fusion, navigation, localization, and various others. So, it's actually not much of a stretch to align the two project technologically, and harvest the Government's investment in a much nearer term horizon with QC Bot than would be possible with BEAR. 

What does QC Bot mean for hospital staff? 

We have seen very positive reception by hospital staff - even enthusiasm, and affection for our robots from the very beginning of our QC Bot deployments. The robot becomes a work partner to the staff.  QC Bot interacts naturally with users, who come to rely upon it to do the kind of work, like transporting items, that they'd rather do less. As a result, nurses get to spend more time with patients, the quality of work improves, efficiency improves, job satisfaction improves, and ultimately, and most importantly the quality of care improves. 

Vecna has recently run pilots in France with the QC Bot. Why is the international market so interested in adopting this technology? 

We actually see as much interest in the US, and worldwide for QC Bot. The need to improve health care and the efficiency of delivering care is ubiquitous. The current peak interest in France is a combination of our very well connected distributor there, and a great need in France, being in the top ten countries in terms of hospital beds per capita. 

What advice do you have for hospitals, clinics and providers as they seek a multi-functional robotics system to fit their needs? 

Hospitals, clinics, providers and other end users should engage with the robot vendor closely and early on as a partner. Among other things, this allows both parties to identify the highest value applications, some of which may not have been apparent at the outset. QC Bot, for example, is a highly versatile system, that can also provide safety and security services, asset tracking, bedside registration, patient self-service and other functionalities, besides acting as a hospital courier system. 

Robots can occasionally be seen as taking jobs away from people and replacing the "human touch" that some people feel is essential in healthcare. As the robotics field improves and innovates, how can healthcare providers balance the need to move forward technologically against the need for customized patient care? 

QC Bot can actually add human touch in that it relieves nurses and other staff from menial delivery tasks. This frees them up to spend more time delivering care, and performing the functions they have been trained and hired to do. Nurses can provide more customized health care, while robots do the pill counting, meds dispensing, and cart pushing. 

How would you describe Vecna's driving principles for choosing what projects to pursue? 

Our motto is Better Technology. Better World. We strive to make a positive difference in people's lives, and even save lives. For example, our QC PathFinder software helps reduce deadly healthcare-acquired infections, and has saved many lives. Together, QC PathFinder, QC Bot, and our line of patient self-service, telemedicine, and patient throughput solutions are revolutionizing healthcare. There is now broad agreement that taking care of the health of our people, today and tomorrow, is one of the biggest challenges we face as a nation. This has implications that touch all aspects of our lives, including our national debt, and through that, even national security. We are developing the technologies that will help solve this challenging problem. 

You've become a leader in health technology. What, in your opinion, is the next big thing? 

Patient self-service. Most other industries, including banking and air travel have moved to this model, to reduce customer frustration and wait times, and to improve service. Retail is moving in the same direction. By adopting this model for the transactional, payment, and any non-care related activities, huge improvements in efficiencies can be achieved.

An extension of this model includes personalized self-health monitoring. Again, technology will enable anyone to have a much more real-time, on-going, and self-controlled access to their health status than currently possible with occasional, time consuming and expensive doctors' visits. An early version of this is Vecna’s self-service kiosk with additional vitals measuring features. This technology extends the increasingly popular "Quantified Self" and "Measured Life" trends. Studies have shown that patient self-service and self-health monitoring turns a switch in people's heads from placing the responsibility for their health entirely on the doctor ("Doctor, fix me"), to take more responsibility for their own health and healthy lifestyles. This will be huge. 

Vecna has a number of community service efforts related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). What does this involvement in the community contribute to your work? 

Our outreach and community services aim to improve the world and people's lives through four major activities - Global Health Initiative, Healthy Communities, Technology for the Future, and Open-Source Community. We encourage our team members to spend 10% of their paid time on community service. How does all this involvement benefit Vecna? We believe employees who engage in community service are happier, healthier and more productive employees, even though this is not the driving motivation of course. We believe it is simply the right thing to do for a company to support and encourage employees to act responsibly, ethically, show compassion with those less fortunate, and contribute to healthier and more vibrant communities. Our employees feel strongly about our community service commitment - it is part of our common bond as a tight knit team and community. Real change is only possible through the efforts of people who care. We are those people.


About Dr. Martin Buehler

Martin Buehler is Vice President of Logistics Solutions at Vecna Medical. His passion is to bring robotics technologies like QC Bot to market in high value applications. He received the Joseph F. Engelberger Award in Technology for his contributions to robotics in academia and industry over the past 20 years.


About Vecna Medical

Vecna Medical, a robotics and healthcare technology company based in Cambridge, MA. Since its founding in 1999, Vecna has created cutting-edge robotics platforms and related software applications including the Bear- TM, a humanoid battlefield extraction assist robot, and the QC Bot (R), an autonomously navigating hospital logistics robot. As a magnet company for robotics innovation, Vecna is proud to employ world leaders in automation, sensing, tracking, and navigation technologies who extend their expertise to the healthcare industry through Vecna's solutions.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow

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