‘Smart wheelchairs’ to take patients to imaging suites being tested
October 31, 2023
TORONTO – What happens when a diagnostic imaging suite is waiting for an in-patient to arrive, but the patient is nowhere to be seen? Technologists and in some cases, a radiologist, are left cooling their heels – high-priced talent with nothing to do!
Often enough, porters are tied up and aren’t able to deliver the patient on time.
It happens more than you’d care to think, says Dr. Patrik Rogalla, Imaging Site director at the Toronto General Hospital, part of the University Health Network. And when it does, it costs the hospital money. What’s more, it can lead to rescheduling the appointment for the patient.
“Every hospital loses millions of dollars a year in this way, through lost productivity,” said Dr. Rogalla. As well, late and missed appointments due to transport problems lead to treatment and safety issues for patients who don’t get their imaging done on time.
“Patient care can be compromised,” he said. “It’s a known issue.”
As an innovative solution, Dr. Rogalla organized the testing of automated “smart” wheelchairs through the Joint Department of Medical Imaging, the diagnostic imaging department that serves three large organizations: the UHN, Sinai Health and Women’s College Hospital.
The wheelchair arrives on its own at the bedside, and patients need only to be helped into it by a nurse or assistant. Thanks to its built-in smarts, the wheelchair knows where to go and can deliver the patient to the correct imaging suite, on time, and without any human assistance.
The smart wheelchair works much like the driverless cars that are under development by Tesla and many other companies. However, in hospitals the vehicles are moving at slower speeds, and there are fewer variables to consider, such as rooms and directions.
Tests have shown the wheelchairs can get the job done.
“It’s the human portering that’s flawed,” said Vivek Burhanpurkar, president and founder of Cyberworks Robotics of Toronto, the company that’s working with Dr. Rogalla on the smart wheelchair tests.
“The wheelchairs are more reliable. They never bump into anything, while porters bump into things all the time,” said Burhanpurkar.
Dr. Rogalla and Burhanpurkar have been experimenting with automated wheelchairs since before the pandemic. “Since then, we must have logged over a thousand hours,” Burhanpurkar said. The technology, he noted, could be easily applied to a gurney or bed, enabling these objects to move unassisted through a hospital, as well.
Burhanpurkar said hospitals are a challenging environment, as they can suddenly get crowded and chaotic. However, Cyberworks Robotics has a lot of experience with automated vehicles and has been able to apply many lessons previously learned to the wheelchairs.
His business has supplied smart vehicles to a number of industries, such as warehouses, to pick up and deliver parts, and it has also produced automated cleaning vehicles.
He explained that wheelchairs – or beds – can be outfitted with computers, sensors and electric drives; the system can be programmed with its own “GPS” so that it senses where it is in a hospital. It has its own internal maps so that it can find the right rooms, and the sensors prevent it from bumping into people or objects.
He said that hospitals in the United States have now expressed interest in the product, as have airports. “In some cases, one out of three passengers at airports have requested wheelchair assistance,” said Burhanpurkar. “These airports don’t have enough personnel to escort the passengers. They’re looking to automated wheelchairs to get them around.”
Burhanpurkar said he was working on a contract with a U.S. airport, but as negotiations were currently underway, he wasn’t at liberty to provide details.
Meanwhile, for hospitals, he said the technology is ready. “Every hospital stands to gain thousands of hours a year in lost productivity. There are a lot of hours lost in imaging departments, with professionals standing around waiting for patients. And every hour you recover leads to more patients getting imaged.”