Since February, the nurses at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia have had an extra assistant on their shifts: Moxi, a nearly six-foot tall robot that ferries medication, supplies, lab samples, and personal items through the halls, from floor to floor. After two years of battling Covid-19 and related burnout, it’s been a welcome relief.
“There’s two levels of burnout: There’s ‘we’re short this weekend’ burnout, and then there’s pandemic burnout, which our care teams are experiencing right now,” says Abigail Hamilton, a former ICU and emergency room nurse that manages nursing staff support programs at the hospital.
Moxi is one of several specialized delivery robots that has been developed in recent years to ease the strain on health care workers. Even before the pandemic, nearly half of US nurses felt that their workplace lacked adequate work-life balance. The emotional toll of seeing patients die and colleagues infected at such a large scale—and fear of bringing Covid-19 home to family—has made feelings of burnout worse. Studies also found that burnout can have long-term consequences for nurses, including cognitive impacts and insomnia years after the exhaustion of their early careers. The world already had a nurse shortage going into the pandemic; now, roughly two out of three nurses in the US say they have considered leaving the profession, according to a survey from the National Nurses United union.
In some places the shortage is leading to higher wages for permanent staff and temporary travel nurses. In countries like Finland, nurses are demanding better pay and going on strike. But it’s also paved the way for more robots in health care settings.
At the forefront of this trend is Moxi, which has spent the pandemic rolling down the halls of some of the largest hospitals in the country, carrying objects like a smartphone or beloved teddy bear to patients in emergency rooms when Covid-19 protocol kept family members from bedsides.
Moxi was created by Diligent Robotics, a company cofounded in 2017 by Vivian Chu, a former Google X researcher, and Andrea Thomaz, who developed Moxi while working as an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin. The roboticists met when Chu advised Thomaz at Georgia Tech’s Socially Intelligent Machines Lab. The first Moxi commercial deployment came months after the start of the pandemic. About 15 Moxi robots are now operational in US hospitals, with another 60 scheduled to deploy later this year.
“In 2018, any hospital that was thinking about working with us, it was a special project for the CFO or innovation project about the hospital of the future,” says Diligent Robotics CEO Andrea Thomaz. “What we saw over the last two years is that almost every single health care system is thinking about robotics and automation, or has robotics and automation on their strategic agenda.”
A range of robots have been developed in recent years to carry out health care tasks like disinfecting hospital wards or assisting physical therapists. Robots that touch people—like Robear, which helped lift elderly people out of bed in Japan—remain largely experimental, due in part to liability and regulatory requirements. Far more common are specialized delivery robots.