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[June 30, 2006]         
Robots Join the Workforce


At a black-tie ceremony worthy of the Oscars, SUNY Downstate Medical Center was recognized by the Computerworld Honors Program as a leader in the global IT revolution for its innovative use of robots to enhance the delivery of patient services. Joel Stern, associate director of information services, accepted the 2006 Laureate gold medal on behalf of the Medical Center at the Washington, DC, gala on June 5.
Cisco Systems, a member of Computerworld’s Honors Chairmen's Committee—a group of 100 chairmen/CEOs from leading IT companies who submit nominations for organizations they feel demonstrate extraordinary use of information technology—nominated SUNY Downstate for its use of wireless technology to deploy a high-security robot to deliver medications from the hospital’s pharmacy to its nursing stations. While traveling independently from floor to floor, the robot is constantly tracked by the pharmacy using wireless communications.
“We are honored to have the technology that Downstate uses showcased, ”said Mr. Stern, who devised the wireless robot system. “As an IT director, I’m often involved in initiatives that are critical to patient care, but I seldom see the tangible benefits,” he explained. “In the case of this robot, I know it is helping people. That’s a good feeling.”
Downstate purchased the robot, aka Helpmate, to improve the secure delivery of patient medications. Pharmacists merely need to place medications into the robot’s storage drawers and specify the destination via a menu on its front panel. The robot is able to ride elevators and move through hallways on its own, and internal sensors help it keep track of where it is. But one thing it cannot do is communicate its location to the pharmacy.
Mr. Stern felt it was important to be able to track the robot’s whereabouts. “We put in a Cisco wireless network for two reasons,” he explains. “First, to let the pharmacy know where the robot is at all times, in case it gets stuck, and second, to keep a real-time inventory of what is on the cart, how much has been used, and where it was delivered.”
Many individuals and departments contributed to the success of the project.  In addition to the pharmacy's director, Nicholas Galeota, and Mr. Stern's IT project managers Michael Burns and Jason Wei, they include members of the Scientific and Medical Instrumentation Center, who made certain that the wireless network would not interfere with the telemetry system used to monitor mobile patients, and the Facilities Management & Development team, which facilitated maintenance on the elevators to make it easier for the robot to get in and out.
The wireless robotic system is an unqualified success. By ensuring the safe and timely delivery of medications, hospital efficiency and productivity have increased and so has patient satisfaction. Mr. Stern envisions other practical uses for the wireless network, such as collecting and storing patient data.
“Nurses will be able to take a patient’s vital signs at the bedside, enter the data into an IP-capable hand-held device or laptop computer, and store the data directly on that patient’s computerized medical record,” he explained. “Through the innovative use of new technologies, we can maximize our resources as never before.”
SUNY Downstate Medical Center is the only academic medical center in Brooklyn, serving the borough’s more than two million inhabitants.