A few years ago we wrote about Veebot when we collected the most exciting tasks robots could do in hospitals. Veebot created a robot that could draw blood – in difficult cases faster and even more effectively than a human. Tests showed that it can correctly identify the most accessible vein with an 83% accuracy. This is about as good as an experienced human phlebotomist. Moreover, with this technology, the blood-drawing process takes only about a minute.
Veebot’s video was hugely popular because they wanted to robotise a process known to and disliked by everyone. It turned out that everyone wanted the result this robot could achieve – but without the robot itself.
Some years went by and the concept turned into reality. Vitestro announced in 2022 that their blood-drawing robot, officially called an ‘Autonomous blood drawing device, combining artificial intelligence, ultrasound imaging, and robotics’, has performed 1500 blood draws on 1000+ patients.
The company now started a large-scale clinical trial, with enrollment of the first 350 patients. This trial will involve a total of 10,000 patients and is expected to last for two years. Vitestro says they plan to obtain CE marking by the end of 2024, after which the technology is expected to be ready for use for patient care in hospitals and laboratories.
Are you afraid of a blood draw?
Blood draws are one of the most common clinical procedures, and, as we wrote earlier, it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. (Remember Theranos?) There is simply no other means to draw a sufficient amount of blood from the patients otherwise. And despite the fact that it’s a common procedure, it’s fairly difficult for nurses and medical professionals to get enough routine. I clearly remember when I first had to take blood as a doctor: the patient, a kind, old lady was as scared as I was; I was trying to comfort her as much as myself. It would be good to spare such an experience for medics and patients alike.
But this will come as no surprise: people don’t like needles or giving blood. Many people have straightforward fears related to these. So much so that we have multiple names for these fears like haemophobia, trypanophobia, BII and so on. Healthcare professionals themselves often struggle with the procedure, finding the veins in patients can be particularly difficult; for example when the patient is obese, dehydrated, has certain severe chronic conditions – or simply has small or inelastic veins. In these challenging cases, healthcare professionals only have an average success rate of 73% in finding the veins with the needle.
Although there are devices to support blood draws (like vein scanners that can help detect veins), these are expensive and can’t help in every case. But robots can.
Why is it irritating if robots are touching us?
Because there is this issue with robots. We humans seem to be sort of afraid of them. The more human-like they become, the more we tend to resent them. And this is even the case if they can do a better job than humans – we don’t want them to do so. This is a burden we must overcome as another cultural shift on our route toward digital healthcare.
A few years ago news came out of a robotic blood draw solution with striking examples in their clinical trial about their success rate. The automated blood-drawing robot of Rutgers University’s research team could in some cases outperform human professionals doing the same task. Their research showed that the robot (that also includes a blood analyser) could free up time for nurses and doctors to spend more time treating patients instead of jabbing them with needles.
Automatisation as the ultimate solution
The robot won’t just assume they know where the vein runs – it actually sees it. Its hands never shake, it is never overworked, it won’t get tired – and it frees up valuable nurse time.
Nurses would still need to be present to provide empathy and support to the patient. But the burden of the obligatory ‘doing well’ is not on their shoulders. Process automation would also provide a level of safety for the patient.
Robots in hospitals
The pandemic had been good for robots. They were deployed in many fields. Over the past years, we could hear about disinfectant robots, surgical robots, robots supporting telehealth, and so on. The list is endless. From humanoids to ‘tablet-on-a-stick’-kind of devices, the aim is to support humans by taking the weight off of their shoulders.
The fact that they could take part in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in hospitals and help prevent hospital-acquired infections gave these devices a much-needed extra boost. They thereby could finally move out of the “sometimes cute but often useless”-category and found a suitable field where they can really be helpful for the people actually working in hospitals. Like in the case of blood samples taken by robots.
It’s not at all a far-fetched idea, although we honestly think this concept is still in its infancy (read here why we think this way, update on the tech here). However, such sci-fiesque technologies present a fertile ground for a forward-looking discussion that’ll help to understand the task of technologies that seem strange at first sight.
We trust MRI scans. Why don’t we trust robots?
As patients, we interact with advanced medical technologies without a second thought. We lie still for MRI scans, undergo CT tests, and subject ourselves to X-rays. We readily trust these machines, despite not always understanding the details of how they work.
At The Medical Futurist, our goal is to support healthcare organisations, governments and medical professionals in adopting digital health technologies. We strive to build a community that can drive healthcare innovation worldwide and facilitate the pragmatic and cultural changes that are needed.
In our vision, we all (medical professionals, patients, institutions, and policymakers) make use of the cutting-edge technologies that surround us – but at the core of all healthcare interactions are the people who care for and listen to each other.
The future is waiting. We just need someone to implement it.