Could Automation Threaten the Role of the Hospital Porter?

Hospital porters move patients, clinical and non-clinical goods around healthcare settings.  Although the role is critical to the smooth operation of large settings like hospitals, the method of transport for goods can often be ad hoc with cages, flatbeds and even wheelchairs being used. This obviously impacts on risks to both the porter and to the goods themselves.

The Guardian Sick Days NHS

Risks to hospital porters are very real. 40% of NHS absence in 2016 was due to back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders and despite manual handling training having been improved in recent years, porters remain at the highest risk of being affected.

So the NHS is faced with the task of minimising this risk and protecting porters. One of the latest innovations has been to utilise electric tugs, allowing porters to move several roll cages at the same time, rather than having to move one at a time. For NHS Trusts under increasing time pressures (such as the four-hour standard, which specifies that patients attending an A&E department must be seen, treated and discharged within four hours) reducing the time that porters take up with non-clinical tasks, means they can spend more time in patient facing roles, such as moving patients between wards.

But whilst technology might be to the benefit of porters in the short term, might technology creep toward full automation and threaten the role of the porter altogether?

Robot Hospital Porters

In fact, this isn’t a question for the future, it’s happening right now.

When South Glasgow University Hospital opened in 2015, the trust had invested £1.3m on a fleet of automated guided vehicles and a network of underground tunnels and a dedicated lift to navigate the 14-storey hospital. These robot porters collect a wide range of cargo including kitchen materials, linen and medical supplies dispensed from specially-designed loading bays. South Glasgow also invested in miles of a pneumatic tubes built into the facility which are used to fire medical notes, samples and medicines around the hospital.

Express NHS Robots

In South Glasgow, they were able to build the system from scratch in a brand new setting. But elsewhere in the world, alternative solutions are being found that can operate without major changes being required. Panasonic has built autonomous delivery robots named HOSPI, which have been adopted in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.  HOSPI are able to deliver fragile and bulky medicine, medical specimens and patients’ case notes 24/7, easing manpower constraints. HOSPI is equipped with sensors and programmed with the hospital’s map data to avoid obstacles such as patients in wheelchairs and complete deliveries with minimal supervision. New hospital routes can be programmed in advance, allowing flexibility. The autonomous robot communicates and relays information on its whereabouts to the control centre, enabling its location to be monitored and recorded at all times.

So while the future may be safer for hospital porters in the short term, the long term future of the role as it is today, looks uncertain.