High-Tech TUG Robots at Mercy Hospital St. Louis Help Nurses and Support Staff With Deliveries

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    Mercy-Hospital St. Louis has some high-tech help with autonomous mobile robots. Exactly, 24 of them! Each one on different floors and given a name of its own.

    “Our co-workers really see the robots as a part of their team,” said Megan Nolan, Operations Lead at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. “They’re all going to have a name badge similar to a co-worker’s name badge.”

    Besides the individual identity, the robot is called TUG, named for the way it totes carts with supplies, even meals.

    “The robots pick up the meals from the kitchen and then deliver them to the nursing units. And we have a patient ambassador stationed on that floor who takes the meal trays off of the cart that the robot delivered, and takes them to the patient,” said Nolan.

    Patient ambassadors are responsible for receiving and sending out TUG deliveries. TUGs transport meals, medication, linen, even trash from the nursing units to help keep the hospital clean.

    Everything TUG does is intended to help nurses and support staff focus on patient care, giving them more time at the bedside.

    “They’re able to do more of what they love which is connect with the patient and less of the things that are really hard,” Nolan explained. “Which is walking around and pushing really heavy carts.”

    TUG reduces the physical workloads on people, which reduces their risk of injury.

    “In support services, most of our co-workers walk a minimum of 10 miles a day, delivering supplies throughout the hospital. So, we found that this technology lessons the physical demands that are placed upon them.”

    Autonomous TUGs reliably navigate hospital hallways. The robot journey starts with a CAD drawing that provides the map of the hospital to Aethon, the company providing TUGs to hospitals.

    “They come out with a little mapper robot and they tour around the hospital with the mapper robot getting all the hallways and passageways that we’re going to be using for the TUGs. They program that into the TUG. And from there, when the TUG is moving around on its own, it uses that (navigation system) to guide itself through its routes,” said Jacquelyn Bauch, Executive Director of Support Services at Mercy Hospital Jefferson and Mercy Hospital South.

    When people are on the move or freestanding objects should appear, TUG’s sensors allow the robot to react.

    “It’s able to see if an object is in its way or humans walking up on it,” said Bauch. “It’ll stop and it will wait to see if the human is going to move around it. Or if the object is stationary, it will travel around that object.”

    The robots go to the pharmacy for drugs and the kitchen for food, which means they don’t just stay on the same floor. TUGs call for elevators and open doors. TUGs also react to emergencies and remove themselves from an area.

    TUG is considered the perfect solution at Mercy Hospital St. Louis after a successful pilot program at Mercy Hospital Jefferson.

    “We’d love to expand it to other hospitals. So, it’s starting in St. Louis and then we’re rolling it out at Mercy South and then we’re going to eventually expand it to all seven hospitals going down the I-44 corridor – to Springfield, Joplin, Northwest Arkansas (Fort Smith) and Oklahoma City,” said Bauch.

    Nolan said the robots are not replacing people. She said there’s still a need for workers.

    “Across support services at Mercy, we have hundreds of open positions and so we are instead leveraging this technology to help advance our co-workers.”

    As TUGs become almost part off the staff, they are affectionately more than an object.

    “Our co-workers wanted to come up with a fun and creative way to embrace the technology,” explained Nolan. “So, they came up with the idea to name the robots. A lot of the names are kind of a play on movie characters or robots that you might have seen in popular TV shows or movies like Judy or Wally.”