Hospital nurses are some of the most in-demand employees in the health care industry but, with staffing shortages in hospitals across the country, they are often stretched beyond their capabilities on the job. With her new company, Diligent Droidz, Austinite and UT professor Andrea Thomaz hopes to give these overworked nurses an extra hand . . . literally.
Diligent Droidz is an early-stage startup aiming to create healthcare service robots — machines that will assist nurses and clinicians with menial tasks so they can spend more time caring for their patients.
Thomaz plans for the robots to act like nurses’ assistants on the floor, but their exact duties may vary based on need. During the research stage, Thomaz and her team have been talking to doctors, nurses and hospital administrators to learn how automation in general could help improve their workflows and the quality of care they deliver.
“What we’ve heard over and over for the past year, is that there’s a shortage of nurses, and they want nurses to be spending time with patients and doing the tasks that they are trained to do.”
In the health care industry in particular, Thomaz says there just aren’t enough people to do the busywork, and professionals end up performing tasks that are below their licenses.
“We’ve heard from a lot of nurses and spoken to over 150 different hospitals, doctors and Chief Nursing Officers, and we keep hearing that nurses are spending anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of their time hunting and gathering or searching around for a supply or medication they need for their patient,” Thomaz says. “What we hope is that robots could cut away some of that time that nurses are spending hunting and gathering.”
This would leave the nurses free to do the important work — spending time with patients, helping them understand their conditions and teaching them how to improve their health after they leave the hospital.
Thomaz has partnered with the family of Seton hospitals in Austin, where the droids will be tested and used on a trial basis. She is also in talks with St. David’s Hospital in Austin and a hospital in Atlanta to bring her droids to their locations for further testing.
The staff at Seton is excited about the possibility of robot assistants, and hopes that they’ll be the secret to making patient care at the hospital more effective and efficient.
“They’ve been a great partner to work with because they’re really interested in doing the research with us,” Thomaz says. “We’re working with them to understand their current workflow and then see how we can disrupt it and innovate it and have robots take on some of the tasks that are potentially busy work.”
Thomaz teaches in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin, bringing with her a background in computer science and engineering, including a Ph.D. from the MIT Media Lab. Her research has always been in the field of human/robot interactions, and she’s been working on robot-human collaboration for the last 15 years.
“I’m very interested in how we can build robot systems and AI systems that can help people be better at their jobs,” Thomaz says. “We think of these robots we’re building as one of the team.”
She doesn’t believe her robots will endanger any jobs because nurses are in short supply, and because the robots won’t be doing any direct patient care.
“I like to think of it as a collaboration — that AI is an augmenting factor for human teams,” Thomaz says.
Diligent Droidz has received a small business research grant from the NSF and is now focused on prototyping different robot technologies in their test hospitals before doing a big push to get a product out to market. Diligent Droidz currently has a staff of five people and, depending on fundraising, Thomaz says she expects their business to ramp up in 2017.