Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Gore leads nation in adopting healthcare robots

The healthcare robots were trialled at Selwyn Retirement Village.
The healthcare robots were trialled at Selwyn Retirement Village.

Gore will this week become the first place in New Zealand to employ Disney-like robots to help humans with their health.

The ground-breaking development is thought to be the first step toward a robot future, where machines will assist us in all facets of life.

After a successful trial at Selwyn Retirement Village in Auckland, four healthcare robots have been deployed by Gore Health to help reduce costs, save staff time and improve patients' long-term health.

One large "healthbot" will be based in a GP practice, performing tasks such as taking vital signs, while three smaller robots will be placed in patients' homes with the aim of extending independent living.

It is thought to be the first time such robots have taken on permanent roles in a clinical setting, Gore Health chief executive Karl Metzler said.

"I've worked in health for a number of years and I've never thought of having a non-human workforce as an option," he said.

"It's come out of left field and we are so excited to be at the front end of it all ... it's a real privilege."

Gore Health is working closely with UniServices, the commercialisation company of the University of Auckland, which launched its HealthBots Project four years ago. The robots use hardware created in South Korea and software developed by UniServices and other New Zealand companies.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, formerly the Ministry of Science and Innovation, has also pumped $600,000 into the project.

Other health providers had shown a keen interest in the robots, said Dr Bruce MacDonald, a senior lecturer at the university's electrical and computer engineering department.

"We've wanted to try this out not as a research thing, but as deployment, so that once it's shown to work, it can be duplicated in other places around New Zealand."

Some hospitals around the world were already using robots which roamed wards and checked patients, while being controlled by a doctor who could be on another continent.

In New Zealand, some hospitals had used robotic carts, yet nothing as advanced as the healthcare robots.

Elsewhere, robots were being used in meat processing factories, while robotic vacuum cleaners had been available for years, Dr MacDonald said.

"But those robots don't really interact with (people) which is what we are all about."


Mate and machine

Three of the healthcare robots will assist with aged care in the Gore community, serving as faithful companions to elderly patients, especially those needing long-term chronic care.

The healthbots check blood pressure and heart rate, automatically transfer test data to clinicians and caregivers, and monitor for falls.

They also use voice recognition to talk back to patients, remind them to take medication, trundle around the room and provide some companionship.

In times of emergencies, such as incorrect medication data or abnormal vital sign measurement, the robot is capable of sending off text messages to the holder of a nominated phone indicating a problem.

- NZ Herald

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