MACHINES are taking over the Scottish NHS, according to new figures on the number of robots used in hospitals.
At least 84 robots are now in service in Scottish hospitals having taken over jobs ranging from dispensing drugs to ferrying linen.
The machines have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to install and annual maintenance contracts and repairs add tens of thousands to the bill.
But one health board said robots had helped deliver savings of more than £750,000. And while human jobs have been lost, managers insist staff were deployed to areas where a human touch was still appreciated.
All of Scotland’s health boards were asked under the Freedom of Information Act to provide details of their use of robots.
NHS Forth Valley is leading the way with a grand total of 40 robots introduced since 2010.
Management have spent at least £130,000 on on 13 automated guidance vehicles (AGVs) – robots that move waste and linen and transfer food trolleys to wards.
A further three machines work in “storage, distribution and dispensing of medicine” in a hospital pharmacy.
They also use a “mail matrix machine” with 24 “ibots”.
Forth Valley said £22,658 had been spent on “maintenance contracts, and a PC and printing consumables since installation.
They said there had been no accidents but that AGVs are “serviced at regular intervals” and “routine errors” tended to by human staff “trained to fix these errors and perform simple mechanical repairs”.
In the pharmacy alone, said the board, the machines had helped deliver savings of £755,784.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde revealed it is now using 11 pharmacy robots in the South Glasgow Hospitals Campus.
The machines cost £77,245 over the last 12 months although the board said it did not have information on how many malfunctions occurred or how many repairs were needed.
Grampian said it has three robots in an automated pharmacy but claimed costs since installation were confidential.
It did reveal that there had been two “accidents” and 11 malfunctions needing “engineer assistance”. Savings were unknown and the board stated no staff have been “replaced” by the robots.
NHS Tayside has four pharmacy robots in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, making up a pharmacy dispenser that has cost £9,500 a year since its installation in 2011. Between April 2013 – March 2014 there were 36 engineer call outs.
Ayrshire and Arran board have two pharmacy robots – one in University Hospital Crosshouse and the other in University Hospital Ayr Pharmacy Department. It stated that costs were “commercially sensitive” but added: “Annual revenue savings of £34,000 were anticipated”.
Pharmacy staff were said to have been freed up “supporting direct patient care”.
“Delivery” staff replaced by AGVs were “moved to other posts” at Forth Valley.
A spokesman for health workers’ union Unison said: “We do keep a watchful eye on developments. Not all new technology improves patient care. It’s important to patients that they receive a personalised service from staff.”
He added: “Robots tend to take on boring repetitive tasks like dispensing or storing drugs, or pushing heavy trolleys along corridors freeing up staff to do more meaningful work. They can also help to prevent injures like repetitive strain injuries or bad backs.”
Both NHS Lothian and Dumfries and Galloway have tendered public contracts for potential automated pharmacy machines.
NHS Fife, Lanarkshire, Shetland, Borders, Orkney and Western Isles do not use robotic workers.