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New robots treat Italian patients so doctors can keep their distance

A robot helping medical teams treat patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is pictured at a patient's room, in the Circolo hospital, in Varese, Italy April 1, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

Help has finally arrived at the Circolo hospital in Varese, on the frontline dealing with enormous numbers of patients in the area hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak. And it has come in the form of six robots.

The child-size machines, with large blinking eyes, work in some of the most infectious wards. One of them has been named Tommy after the son of the head of the intensive care unit.

"Using my abilities medical staff can be in touch with the patients without direct contact," Tommy the robot explained.

The northern region of Lombardy, centered on the financial capital Milan, has accounted for 43% of Italy's known coronavirus cases and 59% of deaths. Varese lies sixty kilometers (37 miles) north of Milan and the Circolo hospital has been under attack from the virus for weeks.

"The idea was born when we thought about the risk of infection and we saw the situation of isolation of our patients," explained the Director of High Intensity Medicine at the hospital, Francesco Dentali.

"To avoid the risk of infection without increasing the risk for the patient we thought the robot could be a good idea to take care of our patient," he said.

"The risk of infection is high also with protection so all the staff, doctors and nurses are happy because robots can help in avoiding the risk of infection," Dentali said.

Robots enter rooms where coronavirus patients are being treated and remain inside the infectious wards. They are being used in a number of ways to augment the work of the doctors and nurses and help in several important areas; namely to reduce some of the work load from exhausted medical teams and most importantly cut down the number of times there is direct contact with the patients. This also reduces the number of times staff have to put on and take off protective clothing, saving time and equipment but more importantly cutting down the risk of contamination.

"...the other advantage for the patient and medical staff is also from the point of view of the organisation of the hospital, it allows us to use less protective clothing like masks and overalls which at this time are in scarce supply," Gianni Bonelli Director of Varese Circolo hospital said.

The robots can relay back vital information from patients taken from machines reading vital statistics. Medical staff can also communicate with patients via the robots and vice versa. Medical staff say the robots allow patients to be more closely monitored, more time is spent monitoring their recovery and highlight quickly any problems that crop up.

The Italian national federation of doctors, surgeons and orthodontists said last week that 46 of their colleagues had died so far, many of them family doctors in northern towns and cities. Circolo hospital hopes their robots can cut down that risk.

The Circolo hospital is the main hospital in a regional area of responsibility that includes a further six hospitals and works with some 5,000 staff. The safety of their medical teams is of paramount importance.

So far in Lombardy, at least two hospitals became vehicles of contamination, with patients infecting medical staff who then spread the disease as they traveled around their communities before a stringent lockdown was imposed.

At a national level, 4,268 health workers - or 0.4 percent of the total - had contracted the virus as of March 20, according to the National Health Institute.

Apart from the safety issue, the hospital hopes coronavirus patients will be left less alone.

"You have to explain to the patients what is the aim and the function of the robot. The first reaction is not positive especially for old patients, but if you explain to the patients what your aim is the patient is happy because he or she can speak with the doctor," Dentali said.

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