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They come to serve
[December 21, 2012]

They come to serve

PLAINS TWP., Dec 21, 2012 (The Times Leader - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center's newest workers are on call 24/7, though they're allowed to recharge their batteries from time to time.

On Thursday, Geisinger unveiled two recently acquired battery-powered robots the Plains Township hospital is using to transport patient medication from the first floor pharmacy to nursing stations around the building's six patient-care floors.

Hospital officials said those deliveries were formerly undertaken by pharmacy workers and nurses, and the robots allow those professionals more time to focus on their core job functions of dispensing medication and caring for patients.

"Our pharmacy techs were spending 40 to 50 hours a week outside the pharmacy (delivering medicine)," said Claude Parnell, director of operations for Geisinger's system therapeutics department. "That's an important job, but you don't necessarily need a trained person to do that." The robots, called TUGs, were designed by Aethon of Pittsburgh, and have been used at the health care provider's main hospital in Danville for eight years.

Since entering service at the local hospital Nov. 26, Geisinger spokesman Matthew Van Stone said the robots have traveled a combined 132 miles and made more than 1,600 medication deliveries.

Shaped like a chest of drawers on wheels, the robots also provide a tighter chain of custody for medications, as only the appropriate nursing personnel can open the appropriate drawers once the robot reaches its destination, Parnell said.

Each contains a high-security drawer for controlled substances and very expensive medications that can be opened only with a fingerprint scan. Formerly, medication deliveries were tracked with sheets of paper, Parnell said.

Digital map programming The robots have been programmed with digital maps of the hospital and can follow predetermined routes between the pharmacy and different offices. Each uses a front-mounted laser scanner as well as infrared and sonar sensors to determine its location on the map and to navigate around obstacles, such as hospital workers and patients.

When the robot encounters a person or other obstacle, it announces what it's doing in a female voice that should sound familiar to anyone who's used an in-car navigation system. And should a TUG work itself into a corner it can't escape, Aethon staff can remotely guide the robot from a help desk in Pittsburgh that is staffed 24 hours a day.

To move between floors, the robots can call and operate elevators through a wireless connection with the elevator control room. Aethon Product Manager Dave Wolfe said the TUG units will not get into an occupied elevator -- they wait until the elevator has been idle for 8 seconds before calling it -- but if someone gets on after, the robots will accommodate them.

While not in use, the TUGs recharge at a docking station near the pharmacy.

While the TUGs have prompted some strange reactions from patients, Parnell said Geisinger's staff has embraced the robot workers.

"They had a little bit of a hard time understanding how this cabinet on wheels was going to work," Parnell said. "But once they see they're really kind of impressed that it does what we told them it was going to do. They've embraced it, because it makes their lives easier." Wolfe said the robots can be reconfigured to transport other items for the hospital, including linens, meals, lab samples and trash. Parnell said the hospital would consider those additional uses, but is currently focused on using the robots to their full potential in the pharmacy.

___ (c)2012 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) Visit The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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