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At UCSF Medical Center, robot-aided healthcare is here

Matt Weinberger | Feb. 2, 2015
When the brand-new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay in San Francisco opens on Sunday, patients will be greeted by staffers that more strongly resemble R2-D2 than the cast of Scrubs.

And no, there is no Skynet contingency plan.

The most striking thing about these robots is how clunky and utilitarian they look. A stationary Tug in the hallway looks like your garden-variety trash cart. Of interest to CIOs is that each class of Tug is completely owned by the department that operates it: Housecleaning services is responsible for the guidance, loading, and scheduling of the linen-hauling robots, while janitorial staffers deal with the trash-hauling robots. IT only steps in when something's actually wrong. 

Any robot carrying anything sensitive (medical instruments, blood samples) comes with a combination lock to avoid theft, while pharmaceuticals require a fingerprint on the part of a hospital staffer. In fact, hospital staff training included getting all 3,000  employees' and 500 physicians' fingerprints on file for this exact purpose. 

The robots aren't where the cool technology ends at UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay: Super-swag MRI and CT scan suites feature ambient lighting that brings timing a Virgin America flight, while others are made to look like cable car tracks or San Francisco's Marina neighborhood. The goal: to put patients of all ages at ease (which, in tangible terms, means patients need less anesthesia and can stay still enough for their CT scans the first time).

Just in time for Sunday's big game, UCSF is working to get the Super Bowl streamed from their iPhones to the MRI suites' projector screen for patients.

Projector screens display calming videos at the patient's command from an iPad. Every patient's room comes with a tablet that allows them to order food, email questions to their doctors, or do Skype calls with loved ones (even if they're in the next room, which is important in the cases of immunocompromised patients). There's also a large wall monitor to watch movies or browse the web. 

All in all, UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay isn't the first hospital to  modernize its technology or deploy robots. But given its location in the heart of San Francisco, so close to where startups and large enterprises are hard at work changing the face of IT and healthcare alike, the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay represents an important step on the road toward the ongoing technology-driven revolution in patient care. 


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