ROBOTS fitted with a revolutionary electronic skin on their fingers and palms are being trialled on a stroke rehabilitation ward in the hope that they could help to relieve severe nursing shortages.

The ultra sensitive e-skin technology enables nurses who are operating the telerobots remotely to 'feel' patients while wearing a specially-designed sensory glove.

This means the robot, known as Välkky, is able to carry out routine tasks such as measuring patients' pulse, temperature and oxygen saturation, serving meals, brushing patients' hair, and operating hospital devices, freeing up nurses to focus on more complex care.

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Touchlab, the Edinburgh start-up company behind the device, believes the technology could prove particularly useful for rural and island communities which struggle to recruit.

The Herald: Nurses operating the telerobot are able to feel what it feels when touching and handling patientsNurses operating the telerobot are able to feel what it feels when touching and handling patients (Image: HotTinRoofPR)

A three-month pilot is now getting underway at Laakso Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, but developers hope to prove that it is safe enough to be adopted by the NHS.

Dr Zaki Hussein, CEO for Touchlab, said that telerobots had previously only been able to see, hear and speak, limiting their applications in a healthcare setting.

He said: "Safety is the big issue. We put [the e-skin] on the fingertips and the palm of the robot so that the nurse can feel what the robot is feeling, via a haptic glove.

"Normally they wouldn't feel anything, and when you don't feel anything and you're interacting with humans, that can be quite dangerous.

"The robot hands are quite powerful so you could end up crushing someone's hand or applying too much pressure.

"In this case we're piloting the robot on a stroke ward where we have very frail elderly patients who are undergoing rehabilitation for weeks to months, maybe longer, so that sense of touch is really vital for safety.

"On a stroke rehabilitation ward, the interaction that nurses have with patients is very physical - they need to move the joints and so on - and that is where we think the skin will show its utility, by allowing for a high level of interaction between patient and robot.

"The skin is the thing that makes it safer.

"Until now, it would have been too dangerous - robots without skin would have caused accidents for patients, no doubt."

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The 'skin' is made of nano-composite materials that make it extremely versatile, flexible and unbreakable - similar to human skin - while transmitting a highly precise sense of touch through electronic sensors.

A mechanism called 'quantum tunnelling' means that the more it is compressed, the more electricity it will conduct, allowing it to detect and mimic back to the operator everything from the feel of a light breath of air to the pressure of lifting something very heavy.

The Herald: The robot is being trialled in Helsinki on a stroke rehabilitation wardThe robot is being trialled in Helsinki on a stroke rehabilitation ward (Image: HotTinRoofPR)

The Välkky telerobots were first trialled in Finland during the pandemic to help reduce the spread of Covid in hospitals.

However, severe nurse shortages in Finland have led to the latest initiative to explore how the technology could alleviate sickness absence and boost productivity.

Nurses can be trained to operate telerobots in a matter of hours because the e-skin makes the experience so lifelike.

Dr Hussein said: "[Finland has] entire wards sitting empty because there aren't enough nurses.

"If you can teleport into a robot from home, or from another hospital, all of a sudden you could improve productivity if you have a fleet of these robots.

"The other thing is absenteeism. Right now, especially in a stroke ward, you have a lot of manual labour.

"Holding items, standing all day, moving patients limbs - these are interactions that robots can do while you're sitting comfortably in the operating chair.

"So even nurses who have had back injuries caused by physical labour would be able to undertake tasks using the telerobot, which means more of the workforce can engage in nursing all of a sudden when before they couldn't.

"In terms of the NHS in Scotland, we think remote and island communities could really benefit.

"If we can put a clinician avatar in place in Glasgow, Edinburgh or wherever, this could really help to deliver healthcare to some of these remote areas if you have a 5G connection."

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It comes after workforce figures published last week revealed that NHS Scotland has around 5,500 nursing and midwifery vacancies and spent a record £170m on agency nurses last year. 

Kirsi Ahonen, head nurse and project manager at Laakso Hospital, said: “Our long-term goal is for Välkky to assist in a variety of day-to-day ward tasks to ensure the delivery of comprehensive patient monitoring and care.

“While Välkky will initially be deployed on a smaller scale, undertaking tasks like retrieving fallen items or taking patient vitals, it has the potential to help with a number of more complex jobs.

"This includes patient-lifting, which could help alleviate potential physical injuries for staff, and reducing the spread of infection.”

The Herald: The developers hope to bring the technology, which was developed in Edinburgh, back to the UKThe developers hope to bring the technology, which was developed in Edinburgh, back to the UK (Image: HotTinRoofPR)

The research is part of a wider €7 billion project aimed at developing the most advanced hospital in Europe, due to be completed in 2028.

Touchlab has recently taken up residency at the National Robotarium in Edinburgh, a £22 million facility funded by the UK and Scottish Governments.

UK Government Minister for Scotland, Malcolm Offord, said the research has "great potential to deliver vital assistance to health staff, improve patient care, prevent the spread of infections or diseases and reduce human exposure to hazardous jobs such as handling toxic waste."

Neil Gray, Scottish Government Wellbeing Economy Secretary, said using robots to carry out routine clinical duties "can free nurses to perform more complex tasks and revolutionise the delivery of health care".