Paolo Rossi Castelli 13 April 2020 5 min read

How robots are helping to treat coronavirus patients | IBSA Foundation

“It’s like having another nurse without problems related to infection”, says Doctor Francesco Dentali, director of intensive care at the Ospedale di Circolo in Varese to Reuters about his first experience  with six robots in the wards. They named the robots “Tommy”, after Dentali’s son, and they arrived on March 27, with human-like features and a series of precise, important tasks: “They are wheeled into the rooms and enable us to monitor patients remotely”, writes the hospital website, “Thanks to in-built cameras, staff can see patients and the monitors next to them, without having to physically enter the room, thus reducing the consumption of protection devices and saving time, including the time taken to put on and take off protective clothing”.

According to Dentali, the first reaction of patients, especially older ones, is often negative. However, once they familiarize themselves with the Tommy robots, everyone understands how useful they can be: for example, they allow doctors and nurses to speak to patients at any time. In addition, they are very user-friendly, because they have touch-screen faces.

The editorial of the journal Science Robotics is also dedicated to the potential of robots in the wards, especially during an emergency situation like the one we are currently experiencing. The article was written by various European, Chinese and US researchers, including those from the University of California San Diego, who discuss the uses that these machines could already have today in great detail. These uses range from the cleaning and decontamination of environments (something that always poses a risk to human personnel, both with regard to infection and intoxication) to the collection of special hospital waste, from the distribution of drugs, food and drink to telemedicine, just like what is happening in Varese with the “monitoring” of vital parameters. Even the possibility, for nurses, to prepare several types of treatments in a separate environment, or other preparations, which can then be sent to sick people without having to physically enter the rooms, increases safety margins.

Finally, in the near future robots could also be used to take swabs and to perform serological tests, and to send those requiring analysis to the laboratories.

Many of these functions were tested during the Ebola epidemics, and are also being studied at present in China. The results have always been positive from a practical point of view, but privacy issues are still to be resolved, as well as how to tackle psychological aspects, because patients expect the type of interaction assured to be as similar as possible to the interaction that takes place between humans.

“Obviously these robots do not remove all human contact with patients, but they reduce the need for access”, explained Professor Dentali, “Actually, by saving us time putting on and taking off protective clothing (which has a considerable impact on our work), they will enable us to improve the quality of the time that we will dedicate to our patients”.

The difficult situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is therefore also a test bed for these new devices. And it is likely that the coronavirus will push engineers and doctors to speed up the time schedules for the Tommy robots of the future.


Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.