Researchers develop mobility tech to make it easier for overburdened hospital staff to do their jobs

With health-care systems under increasing strain, University of Waterloo engineers are developing ways to literally lighten the load for overburdened hospital workers.  

Health-care is physically demanding work; caregivers push equipment-laden carts and transfer patients on heavy beds between wings through obstacle-filled hallways.  

Dr. Amir Khajepour envisions a future, not very distant, in which health-care workers are assisted by robotic muscle and artificial intelligence, thus reducing the physical strain on humans and reducing mistakes associated with physical exhaustion.  

“There is a huge, huge need for it,” said Khajepour, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering and head of the Mechatronic Vehicle Systems (MVS) Lab.  

“We are working to improve mobility, especially in the health-care system, by making it easier and safer to move people and equipment.” 

The Waterloo team’s research, supported by funding from Mitacs, Rogers and NSERC, aims to deploy the first 5G-enabled outdoor and indoor mobility fleet system in the world to address the overwork and worsening shortage of nurses, reduce healthcare costs, and improve patient care.  

Similar to how an e-bike assists a rider, the hospital carts and beds Khajepour and colleagues are developing will do the heavy work, requiring only a light touch from the worker.   

“It is reading the force that you’re putting in the handle, and then it converts that into motion,” he explained. “It helps you with minimum effort. Regardless of the mass of the cart, you can move it around easily. It also has intelligence to protect the cart from hitting anyone or a wall.” 

Canada’s Department of Employment and Development stated in June 2023 that Canada’s healthcare workers have experienced “unprecedented levels of burnout, absences, and turnover” in recent years. The stress felt by individual workers has ripple effects resulting in long wait times for surgeries, emergency room closures and difficulties accessing family health services.  

Statistics Canada reported that the fourth quarter of 2022 saw an all-time high of 95,000 vacant jobs (more than twice the 2019 fourth-quarter figure), and two-thirds of those vacancies were for nursing and support care workers. 

Khajepour believes the assisted mobility technologies he and his team are developing will help reverse those worrying trends, easing the physical stresses that contribute to exhaustion, injury and burnout. Each assisted mobility device will be equipped with a screen running software connected to the cloud, with real-time information – patient information, medication data, doctors’ charts – available to the nurse operating it.  

“So not only are we trying to provide that mobility, we are also trying to make things much easier, providing a full solution to eliminate things that tend to cause mistakes,” said Khajepour. 

Mitacs CEO John Hepburn said the research is “exactly the kind of smart, made-in-Canada research that Mitacs was created to fuel.” Mitacs is a national not-for-profit organization that empowers innovation across the country by making investing in new knowledge easier through access to top researchers, flexible project plans, and co-investments in talent. 

“This is research with important real-world applications, both now and in the future, that will help our overstretched healthcare workers, and help all of us by extension.”  

 The long-term vision for the team’s mobility tech, Khajepour says, is to create fully autonomous hospital beds, carts and medical machinery that can move throughout a hospital from one programmed location to another, intelligently avoiding patients and other obstacles along the way supported by Rogers 5G network. 

“This initiative is a crucial component of the broader partnership between Rogers and the University of Waterloo,” says Aladdin Saleh, Manager of Technology Innovations at Rogers Communications. “This collaboration reflects Rogers’ commitment to advancing cutting-edge technologies in healthcare.” 

The team is developing ceiling-mounted sensors that will track and control its fleet of autonomous hospital beds like an air traffic controller. With the humans relieved from the strain of repetitive heavy pushing and lifting, exhaustion and injuries will decline, helping to rebuild an embattled workforce.  

While fully autonomous beds will not be rolling through hospitals tomorrow, Khajepour says “to move in that direction, we get all the feedback from the main stakeholders starting out with assistive mode, which I think can have a huge impact right away.” 

Feature image: Dr. Amir Khajepour (centre) flanked by his research team, from left to right: Michael Duthie (MVS Lab Technician), Minghao Ning (PhD student), Jeff Graansma (MVS Lab Manager), Frank Yang (PhD student) and Maltiti Braimah (master's student).