Robotic future

Photo story: From robots to PDAs, Forth Valley Royal Hospital leads the way in harnessing technology to deliver better services for patients


Above: A short film about the robots and people at Forth Valley Royal Hospital (made for Serco's Corporate Responsibility report).
Below: Mike Mackay, Serco’s Contract Director at the hospital, tells us about the innovative technology.

Do you think a hospital where robots operate the postroom and pharmacy and fetch and carry laundry sounds far-fetched? Think again – such innovations are already in use at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in central Scotland. Although the robots might be the most headline-grabbing innovation at the hospital, they are just one of many pioneering developments using technology, design principles plus a healthy dose of problem-solving to create a hospital fit for the 21st century.

Work on Scotland’s largest-ever completed construction project began in 2007. The first phase opened to the public in 2010 with the final phase ready in July 2011. Unusually for a company awarded the facilities management contract (including maintenance, portering and catering services), Serco was also involved during the design and build of the hospital. “A small team was present during this phase,” says Mike Mackay, Serco’s Contract Director for Forth Valley Royal Hospital. “We attended design meetings as a voice at the table.” The Serco team suggested, for example, that integrated blinds should be installed instead of curtains, saving an estimated £100,000. Serco involvement ensured that all clocks are electric rather than battery-operated, which means they change automatically, saving staff time. The team also ensured that, where feasible, all service equipment (such as medical gas and water valves) was placed in corridors instead of bedrooms, so that it can be checked and maintained without disturbing patients.

What about the robots?

There are currently 13 robotic machines in use at the hospital, undertaking a variety of tasks including moving linen, trolleys, clinical supplies and waste. The machine in the post room sorts 300,000 items per month, while the pharmacy has a pill-sorting machine, which labels the containers. There’s also a robot to scrub floors, which is used periodically in corridors and other areas. In due course, these machines might be used to transport surgical instruments. Clearly effective, you might wonder why more hospitals aren’t using robots. However, the needs of the robotic system must be considered at the design stage. They require large amounts of space, including separate lifts and corridors, and need to work with other technologies within the hospital; for example, to be able to communicate with fire doors in the event of an emergency.

Mackay points out that using robots has not resulted in any redundancies but has meant staff spend more time helping patients. He also makes it clear that this is not innovation for innovation’s sake. “The starting point is always our service culture,” he says, “and innovation plays its part in this. We take ideas and turn them into good service philosophy, which improves the services delivered to patients.”

Innovative thinking

Good ideas can come from anyone in the hospital. A Serco employee was on the golf course in an electric buggy when it occurred to him that such transport could speed up movement in the hospital’s extensive subterranean corridors, which staff have to walk. “Les Nimmo put his suggestion into our comments box. We went on to buy a dozen buggies, adapted them and created our own transport system.”

Technology also plays a part in helping catering staff provide the right amount of freshly cooked food to patients. All the hospital food is cooked on site and robots transport the trolleys to one of 40 hub areas where it is then collected by housekeeping staff and served to patients. Traditionally, the problem with this system is that popular items can run out towards the end of service. The Serco team has addressed this by using PDAs to talk directly to the chefs, using the wireless network. Housekeepers take orders and input them into the PDAs, thereby ensuring the right amount of each choice is available.

‘Bulk food’ systems such as this typically create 8-15% waste, whereas the Serco version of this system reduces this to just 5%. The PDAs are also used being used in a pilot to assist nursing staff in identifying and helping patients who are not eating well. The housekeepers add this information to the PDA when they collect the trays. The information can then be accessed by dieticians, who monitor the situation.

Just as innovation is deployed to better look after all patients, Serco also takes an innovative approach to its own people. The Academy is a dedicated training facility for staff. Courses on offer cover traditional life skills such as numeracy, literacy and IT as well as ‘aspirations’, which can be anything from art classes to music lessons. “Life sometimes gets in the way of ambitions like these,” says Mackay. Security Officer Keiran Martin (left and above) is studying for his Level 2 Certificate in British Sign Language. “He asked if we would fund him for the course as he wanted to support a profoundly deaf guy who works in portering,” says Mackay. The hospital is also supporting the drive to help young people find employment by offering work experience. “I would very much like to keep on a few people following their placements,” Mackay says. Modern apprenticeships also enable staff in roles such as maintenance to learn a trade such as plumbing. “We want to be an enabler,” he adds.

At a glance

  • Forth Valley Royal Hospital is Scotland’s largest completed NHS construction project 
  • It features high-tech kitchens providing freshly cooked food on the premises
  • An investment of £300 million was required
  • The hospital covers an area the size of nine football pitches
  • 860 beds/day care spaces
  • 16 operating theatres
  • 4,000 rooms
  • 25 wards
  • The UK’s first robotic supply and delivery system
  • Scotland’s first fully robotic pharmacy system

Forth Valley Royal Hospital award wins

  • Building Better Healthcare: 2011 ‘Best Response to Department of Health Policy’ award
  • British Institute of Facilities Management: 2011 winner of ‘Excellence on a Major Project’
  • Golden Service Awards: 2011 ‘Service Delivery Innovation of the Year’ award for cleaning systems
  • Better Together (NHS Scotland Patient Survey): 99% reported a high standard of cleanliness 
  • Unannounced cleanliness inspection in September 2011 by the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate found good levels of cleanliness and low risk to patients

Further reading

Mike Mackay

Mike Mackay is Serco’s Contract Director at Forth Valley Royal Hospital.

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