Case Study No. 111 – Danbury Hospital: Robots Deliver Fun To Hospital (And They Never Call in Sick)


Roscoe and Rosie don't have time for coffee breaks, a lunch hour or idol conversation. You couldn't find two more faithful employees. There's no such thing as working overtime when your typical work day is 24 hours. They promptly attend to duties most employees would find mundane. Whether they are delivering food from the hospital kitchen to patients, running lab and medical records from one department to the next, or delivering mail, their loyalty is unwavering. Given the difficulties most companies have with entry-level service workers, finding employees like Roscoe and Rosie might seem impossible. You'd almost have to program them to be so dedicated. Well that's exactly what Joe Engelberger, president of HelpMate Robotics Inc., (formerly Transitions Research Corp.-TRC) did when he created Roscoe and Rosie who were among the first 10 of his brainchildren for the hospital industry. About 10 years ago, Sue Taub, manager of supply services for Danbury, Conn.-based Danbury Hospital, was in a fix. The Danbury Fair Mall, the largest mall in New England, was being completed and finding service workers for the hospital was almost hopeless. "The labor force just wasn't big enough back then," said Taub. During that time she was at her wits' end. Then Engelberger approached her about Danbury becoming a beta site for his trackless, robotic couriers with a six-foot, 200-pound payload that would be capable of running all kinds of errands throughout the hospital. Taub jumped at the opportunity. At no charge, Danbury received five robots that were programmed with its 345-bed floor plan, two that could be used for their food service and sterile supply needs, and three that TRC reserved for testing. Suddenly Danbury's service void was filled with robots that could deliver supply items, food trays after the kitchen was closed, linens, pharmaceuticals, pathology specimen, or anything that could be easily transported. Not only were these robots - which were quickly christened Roscoe and Rosie - executing entry-level service work, but due to their 24-hour work day, they were also picking up the slack for higher paid hospital staff like nurses and lab techs who work through the night. In essence, they were achieving work loads that could command anywhere from $6/hour to $20/hour. From a marketing standpoint, Taub says that even though she was confident the robots would be an exciting solution to her staffing needs, she was mildly concerned about the impersonal image they might convey to patients. To offset any potential negative perception, the robots were programmed to only retrieve trays from doorways in lieu of direct patient-contact. But patient reaction was phenomenal, according to Taub. "They [patients] loved the robots. They were more concerned about what language the robots could speak, and where it could go, but there was absolutely no fear," she said. Since Danbury was used a an experimental launch pad, the marketing/PR campaign was handled by TRC. They blanketed local and national media outlets with press releases, brochures and opportunities for media hospital tours. Roscoe and Rosie immediately generated media intrigue and interest, since they were the first trackless robotic couriers capable of committing hospital floor plans to memory. "In those days, I spent half my time doing TV and radio interviews, on a local, national and international level. These robots truly captivated the community," said Taub. Justifying the Cost Pretty soon, Danbury Hospital was enjoying coverage from Disovery's "Beyond 2000," BBC, CNN, as well as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and local plugs from newspapers, radio and TV. Roscoe and Rosie's popularity even reached as far as Australia, compelling a film crew to visit the hospital and film them as they made their rounds, mounting elevators, serving patients and thrilling children. In 1991, after about three years, the robots had been sufficiently tested and evaluated, and the time had come for Danbury to decide whether they were going to keep and pay for Roscoe and Rosie. Although Taub wasn't in the same crunch she was in when the robots were introduced (the community's labor force was stronger), she could easily justify the cost of the robots. Retaining Roscoe and Rosie meant two employers working 24 hours, seven days a week, or the equivalent of 4.2 full time employees ranging from entry level (approximately $5/hour) to a more qualified lab tech or nurse (approximately $17/hour). The savings were obvious since Roscoe and Rosie would rent for about $5/hour (based on a 24-hour rate). Now Roscoe and Rosie are veteran hospital staffers with a perfect attendance record. Said Taub: "Periodically, I'll ask my department to evaluate the robots. Even when we're faced with budget cuts, my staffers say 'What ever we do, we can't get rid of Roscoe and Rosie.' " Taub attributes the hospital's success with Roscoe and Rosie to the fact that they were always viewed as a tool, but never as care-givers. Although HelpMate robots are cost-effective, Kathy Null, marketing administrator at HelpMate Robotics Inc., points out that projected savings should not be the only factor hospitals consider. These robots also allow hospital professionals to spend more quality time with patients. Although many hospitals may be inclined to use these robots to downsize, Null advises against such decisions. "We don't sell hospitals on using these robots to replace staff, we emphasize how much more efficient existing staff can become once their time has been reallocated." However, to help hospitals work through the numbers, HelpMate provides a cost justification diskette that walks hospitals through primary considerations like robot applications and number of participating departments. Employment opportunities for these robots couldn't be better. Danbury's success with Roscoe and Rosie has been contagious. "Just last year, we doubled the number of robots servicing hospitals. Nearly 90 hospitals now use over 100 robots," recalled Null, who said that HelpMate services a variety of hospitals that range in size from 50 beds to 1,200 like Philadelphia-based Abington Memorial Hospital and Baltimore-based Franklin Square Hospital Center. (Danbury Hospital, 203/797-7247; HelpMate Robotics Inc., 203/798-8988)

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