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Robots roam SA hospital

Meet Quintin and Selma, the telepresence robot siblings who could have been tailor-made for the era of socially distanced medical care

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Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape has two special virus-immune team members, helping to reduce exposure of medical personnel at the hospital’s COVID-19 ICU.  

The team consists of a brother and sister team of two robots, Quintin and Salma, who are working at the frontline of the hospital’s COVID-19 unit, helping doctors, nursing staff, physiotherapists and other medical personnel with virtual ward rounds. 

These telepresence robots allow a person to be virtually present in the room – be it for a meeting or presentation.  In this case, the brother and sister robot team allow doctors to communicate with and check on their patients remotely, zooming in on their vital signs via their tablets.

Made by robotics company Double Robotics, Quintin and Salma are not quite robots. They consist of a computer tablet attached to a two-wheeled, motorised Segway, allowing doctors to control them via desktop, tablet or smartphone, as they do the ward rounds. 

The robots have a built-in microphone and zoom function, enabling conversation between the doctor and patient, displaying the doctor’s face on the tablet screen. Salma and Quintin are remotely controlled by the medical staff who are able to zoom in on the patient’s vital signs, providing information on Covid-19 patients, such as blood pressure, pulse, electrocardiogram readings, and oxygen saturation in the blood. 

While elder brother Quintin started off first in the ICU ward, his sister Salma has recently followed in his footsteps, to provide support for the medical staff in the unit.  Well-known retail solutions company Smollan donated the second robot to join Quintin in providing assistance in the fight against the pandemic. Salma was donated to Professor Coenie Koegelenberg, a specialist pulmonologist, working in the COVID-19 ICU unit at Tygerberg Hospital.

“When we heard about Quintin’s role in helping doctors and patients at the frontline of the pandemic, we knew we could add further support with our robot, which has similar facilities,” says Rudi Nienaber, Smollan innovative executive.

In this way doctors are protected from coming into contact with highly infectious patients or spreading the virus to their family and other people.  Doctors can work remotely, so that they can still carry out their duties, even if they have been quarantined but are still well enough to work.

This helps to reduce the medical team’s exposure to the COVID-19 patients, while allowing for more frequent low-risk visits to check up on patients who are in need of careful monitoring.

“The robot was purchased for use at the Smollan innovation LAB, our innovation platform, where we generate and accelerate ideas and experiments that could become the foundations of future commerce solutions,” says Nienaber.

The initial intention with the robot was to experiment with the concept of remote engagement between Smollan field managers and store staff. However, the robot technology is now helping to protect personnel against further exposure to highly infectious patients.

“While robots do not replace people, they play a key role in saving time and medical personnel capacity on the ward rounds,” he says.

“Although robots have previously played a role in healthcare, their vital support under infectious COVID-19 conditions will help fast-track their use in the medical field and assist in expediting the necessary procedures to help contain the spread of the pandemic in our country.”

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