Health Center News

A Pandemic Partnership Propels Innovation

It was an unconventional collaboration: a university professor and a team of enterprising students, a robotic prototype named “Dingo” and a Community Health Center. Somehow, they joined forces and triggered a ripple of possibilities that will ultimately make our spaces safer in times of pandemic.

Elizabeth Roark, President of the Board of Directors at the Daily Planet Health Services (DPHS), read in a University of Virginia newsletter that a professor and students were in search of a place to try out the invention of their COVID de-contaminating robot.

“The robot is essentially like a Roomba with an intense ultraviolet fluorescent light that focuses on surfaces to kill bacteria and viruses,” explained Roark.

Robotic prototype
The robotic prototype named “Dingo.”

Originally conceived as a robotic platform to clean up in the aftermath of nuclear or biohazard accidents, a UVA professor, Tomonari Furukawa, PhD., and team of students from Virginia Tech worked on reconfiguring Dingo for a health care environment. Roark talked to Acting CEO Anita Bennett and Chief Medical Officer Patricia Cook, MD, about allowing the robot to try a few test runs at one of their sites.

Daily Planet was already in the thick of COVID. The health center has conducted more than 2,700 COVID tests since the pandemic began and has diagnosed and treated nearly 400 cases. It was a baptism by fire for Chief Medical Officer Cook, who had only been on the job for three months before the pandemic struck. Her first task was to repurpose a recently-acquired building to safely screen and treat patients, who include a large homeless population. Cook put in place a plan to partner with other agencies and contract with local hotels to shelter the homeless who tested positive for the virus and needed a place to quarantine.

“Dr. Cook took the lead on getting the building we had recently secured ready to test and treat patients with COVID symptoms,” said Bennett. “Once it was set up, it was a matter of keeping everything sanitized for the safety of patients and staff. We were also interested in devising new and better ways to decontaminate the space without putting workers at risk for COVID.”

“The structure of this robot is designed to get extremely close to objects and has the ability to reach and treat specific areas. The actual arm of the robot adjusts to each surface individually and adjusts on the fly as needed to reach those hard-to-reach places,” explained Roark.

The semi-autonomous robot reduces the risk of exposure to cleaning staff, saving critical protective gear and supplies, such as antiseptic wipes and bleach.

“The other win on this is it saves costs in so many ways — by keeping staff out of harm’s way of this virus, which in turn can actually save on treatment, trips to the hospital emergency room, hospital stays, hospital bills and employee sick leave,” said Bennett.

A remarkable feat is that no one working at Daily Planet has been infected by the virus at a time when national data shows 12,600 health center staff have tested positive. Thanks to the bold experiment, unnecessary costs were avoided and critical supplies were protected at the health center. Though still at the experimental level, the possibilities are endless for health centers and hospital systems.

“As smaller individual health systems, health centers are nimble,” observed Dr. Cook. “Having fewer resources allows us to be more creative and for that reason, health centers are a good breeding ground for innovation.”

NACHC staffer Keisha Mukanos contributed to this blog post.

Photo: (Left to right) Spencer Leamy, Dean Conte, robotics team; Elizabeth Roark, Board President; Dr. Patricia Cook, CMO; Anita Bennett, Acting CEO; Brent Mast, Health Care Consultant; Tonya Kimbrough, Administrative Affairs Coordinator.