How robot penguins trialled in hospital could solve bed-blocking problems facing the NHS

  • Watch a video report by ITV News Anglia's Natalie Gray

The use of robotic penguins has been trialled in a hospital to help ease the burden on overworked staff and free up hospital beds sooner.

The first prototypes have been working at Milton Keynes University Hospital where staff chose the design and named the penguins Milton.

The helper bots are nearly human sized and have been trained to autonomously navigate the hospital.

They are designed to take medicines from hospital pharmacies directly to the wards, potentially saving patients hours of waiting and freeing up hospital beds sooner - a major problem for the NHS during its busiest times.

"We know that our patients have to wait for sometimes a considerable amount of time to get their drugs to take home," said Prof Joe Harrison, chief executive of Milton Keynes University Hospital.

Milton the helper bot at work in Milton Keynes University Hospital Credit: Academy of Robotics

"We have got amazing pharmacy technicians and pharmacy runners already in our hospital, that I know [...] do 30,000 steps a day as they get called to every part of our hospital.

"These robots are there to support our staff to make their lives easier - not to replace them."

Bed blocking remains a big problem in the NHS.

Earlier this year, NHS England reported that more than 19 beds out of every 20 were occupied across adult general and acute hospital wards (95.7%) in the week ending 15 January.

Over 14,000 beds were taken up by patients who no longer needed to be there – 12% higher than the same period in January 2021.

The Health Secretary Stephen Barclay told ITV News Anglia that the government was looking to exploit the potential of AI in the NHS to take pressure off staff.

"I think it is very exciting to look at how we use robotics, how we use technology, to take burdens off our frontline staff, to think about how we speed up processes within the hospital," he said.

"We know there is more we can do in terms of discharging patients quicker from our hospital.

"That is a key challenge we are working very hard on at the moment and where there is potential to use technology then that is exactly what we should be doing."

The Health Secretary on a visit to the Academy of Robotics in Norfolk Credit: ITV News Anglia

The penguins have been made by the British technology company Academy of Robotics, which is based on the former radar site at RAF Neatishead in Norfolk.

Founder and chief executive William Sachiti said it could help solve a growing problem in hospitals.

"The issue is there is not enough people - sometimes they are just busy and they have a lot to do.

"Imagine an autonomous machine that will bring it to you automatically - and that's what these penguins do.

"We call them helper bots because sometimes it could be a penguin or a parrot, it could be duck. It just depends on what people find most fun in that area.

"So it's fun but it is very functional. It solves a problem in healthcare, moving things from A to B, such as medicines and blood results."

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