In Western Canada first, 2 robots take B.C. hospital lab into the future

Click to play video: 'AI robots take St. Paul’s Hospital lab into the future'
AI robots take St. Paul’s Hospital lab into the future
WATCH: A lab St. Paul's Hospital can test more samples than ever before with new AI helping hands. Grace Ke reports – Jan 24, 2024

Two robots at St. Paul’s Hospital are taking over some of the more mundane work at a busy lab.

The robots, named Tarzan and Jane, now operate in the Microbiology Lab, testing samples and freeing up staff for more complex work.

According to Providence Health Care, the robots currently test about 70 per cent of lab samples that come through the hospital.

The unit, known as the Wasp Lab, tests specimens for bacteria and is the first of its kind in Western Canada.

Dr. Marc Romney, the head of medical microbiology and virology at St. Paul’s Hospital, said the machines have three important components: automation, digital imaging and artificial intelligence.

“We are training (them) to be able to interpret culture results and also to sort plates for us to make the whole process much more efficient, much more consistent,” Romney said. “And the results will be available sooner for patients and optimize patient care.”

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Romney said patients could get lab results within hours, which can be critically important in some cases.

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“Patients in the intensive care unit who have invasive infections, you’re running against the clock, and so any kind of incremental benefit in reducing the turnaround time is important,” he added. “Getting the patient on the right antibiotics, isolating the patient sooner rather than later, minimizing transmission of resistant bacteria in the hospital. It has huge impact not only at the individual level for individual patients but also for infection control in our hospital.”

Romney said it will also cut down on the number of potential injuries to human staff due to repetitive movements such as moving petri dishes under microscopes.

With the hospitals busier than ever and more tests arriving from other hospitals at all hours, Romney said these robots can work around the clock.

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“It’s like having five patients come into the operating room, but you only have one operating room team. How do you manage that? Well, here some of the testing can go to the lab and so we can manage those surges in demand,” he added.

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Romney said he knows there are trepidations about AI and how accurate it can be but he said the benefit is being able to teach the robots quickly to recognize simple patterns and they always have quality checks in place.

“There’s a team of doctors, and if there’s a result that comes up unexpectedly, we will investigate,” he reassured. “And then if it relates to the Wasp, we will correct the problem. So, technology is never perfect. It’s not the be-all and end-all. Sometimes the machines will stop working, there’ll be an error and we need to make sure that the technologists here in the lab have the skills to correct those errors, so they are providing troubleshooting support to the instrument.”

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Romney also said Tarzan and Jane won’t replace jobs as there is such a shortage of personnel to start with.

“This is not only a problem in Vancouver, it’s a problem across North America,” he said. “This will allow us to manage the workload in the future, and it will remove the more manual, mundane tasks from the daily duties of a technologist, which is really important. They can focus on the more complicated work that requires interpretation, human involvement, sequencing, PCR testing. The staff will be redeployed so that they can use their abilities to the maximum, not just setting up culture plates.”

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