Queensland Health continues robot hospital helper roll-out

TESA will be assisting patients and visitors in additional hospitals in the state from next month

Queensland Health is continuing its experimentation with robot assistants, rolling out additional TESA bots to hospitals across the state next month.

Five TESA (The eHealth Service Assistant) robots – which feature humanoid arms, a bank of conversational skills and the ability to interpret and translate 26 languages – are currently on trial in the Princess Alexandra Hospital and the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.

The robots, based on Chinese manufacturer UBTECH’s ‘Cruzr’ model, are being used to guide patients around the hospitals, conduct surveys and entertain children.

“This is our latest adventure in the humanoid robotics’ space and the potential benefits are enormous,” said Queensland Minister for Health and Ambulance Services Steven Miles.

“TESA heralds a new era in the application of robotics and artificial intelligence in public health care,” he added.

Each two-metre tall robot has real-time positioning and mapping capabilities to help it safely move around the hospital. It has a large touchscreen face and can run for 480 minutes before returning to its charging dock. TESA can also hug people, tells jokes and dance.

“TESA provides entertainment. Most importantly, she helps reduce the stress on children when they’re in hospital,” said eHealth digital application services senior director Russell Hart.

“Kids can ask her questions or get her to do a dance, and she’ll happily oblige,” he added.

Its language skills are proving particularly useful to the hospitals; TESA is able to interpret and translate Arabic and Mandarin the most common non-English dialects spoken in Queensland emergency departments.

“TESA can provide language services when necessary to ensure patients and clinicians are communicating effectively. Obviously this is critical, especially in emergency departments when information needs to be accurate and time is of the essence,” Hart said.

Pepper’s personality positive for patients

The TESA robots are not the first to be trialled by Queensland Health. Last year the Townsville Hospital put social robot ‘Pepper’ to work acting as a concierge in the hospital’s short stay unit; the first social robot to be trialled in an Australian hospital.

The robot, made by Japanese firm Softbank, was later moved to the hospital’s main foyer to provide information to patients and visitors on the influenza vaccination. 

“Pepper has the ability to answer questions about what a patient can do if they are feeling unwell, about smoking at the hospital, parking, providing feedback and where to get food and drinks at the hospital but this is only the beginning of what Pepper can be used to do,” said Townsville Health Service’s executive director nursing and midwifery, Judy Morton, at the time.

Pepper meets a patient
Pepper meets a patient

Pepper – whose presence at Townsville was part of a joint project with Queensland Government, James Cook University and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Robotic Vision at QUT – remained at work until the end of last year. Nursing staff and researchers from James Cook will now evaluate the effectiveness of Pepper and visitor reactions to it.

Greater use of social and companion robots by healthcare providers is touted as a “significant opportunity” for Australia in the Robotic Vision ARC’s Robotics Roadmap for Australia.

Although robots are expected to take some of the strain away from hard-worked healthcare professionals, patients will always require human interaction, said Professor Melanie Birks, head of nursing and midwifery at James Cook University.

“As much as robots might have 'personalities' they can't provide the level of caring and therapeutic engagement that nurses and other health professionals provide," she said.