Robots join Indian healthcare system to deal with COVID-19

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Mitra Robot Image
Robots act as a support system to the healthcare system which is under pressure due to the high number of COVID-19 patients

A handful of hospitals have begun using robots to connect patients with their loved ones and assist healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic in India, the country with the world’s second-highest number of COVID-19 cases.

Invento Robotics, based in the south Indian city of Bangalore, has developed three robots to perform tasks ranging from disinfecting surfaces to responding to questions from patients and facilitating video consultations with doctors.

Of the eight the company has so far deployed, the most popular model is Mitra, which means friend in Hindi and costs around $10,000. Using facial-recognition technology, the robot can recall the names and faces of patients it has interacted with. Mitra can roam around a hospital independently, helping patients connect with family and doctors via its cameras and a video screen attached to its chest.

“Mitra can be the nurse’s or doctor’s assistant, take readings and vitals, remind them of medications,” says Balaji Viswanathan, CEO of Invento Robotics.

He says the human-like robot engages with patients and gains their trust. “It may sound ironic but we are using robots to bring humanity to hospitals,” he said.

Yatharth Hospital in the city of Noida, northern India, has deployed two Mitra robots, one at its entrance to screen patients for coronavirus symptoms and the other in the intensive care unit.

“Inside our ICU [Mitra] helps patients connect with their families through video stream and gives the patient’s family a look inside,” hospital director Mr. Kapil Tyagi said. “Patients get happy and positive whenever the robot visits them. They are often clicking selfies with Mitra.”

Invento uses “best in class security” for video feeds between doctors, patients and their families, Mr. Viswanathan says. A booth is installed around the robot, for in-depth telemedicine consultations, that give privacy to patients.

In 2016, Viswanathan and his wife, Mahalakshmi Radhakrushnun, moved from Boston, USA, where he completed a PhD in human robot interaction and Ms. Radhakrushnan worked in manufacturing, to Bangalore. They decided to combine their expertise to create robots in hospitals and nursing homes that enhanced patient care, but they struggled to find customers.

They began supplying robots that could recognize visitors, print passes and collect customer reviews to banks like India’s HDFC (HDB) and Standard Chartered (SCBFF) in Qatar.

“Two years ago, there was not much interest on the healthcare side,” says Mr. Viswanathan. “When coronavirus hit, hospitals finally understood what we were talking about.”

India has witnessed more than 8 million coronavirus cases and more than 120,000 deaths. Hospitals have struggled to cope, and Invento isn’t the only company that helps out with robotics.

Milagrow Robotics specializes in home cleaning robots, but during the pandemic has deployed five humanoid cleaning robots to Indian hospitals, while Asimov Robotics, based in the southern Indian state Kerala, developed a robot to dispense medication and clean up after patients.

Producing robots during the pandemic has been challenging, says Mr. Viswanathan.

When India went into lockdown in March, non-essential businesses closed and his company struggled to secure materials from suppliers. “There was a three to four-month delay. Manufacturing was a huge headache,” he adds.

But his company is starting to deliver on its mission of improving patient care. “That is where our heart is,” Mr. Viswanathan says.