Technology

Point of Care: Is the Blood-Drawing Robot the Phlebotomist of the Future?

Question: Is the human phlebotomist an endangered species? Answer: Not exactly. But a new study suggests that at least one robot may be able to collect blood samples just as well, if not better, than its human counterparts.

The Study

The focus of the story is the blood-sampling robot invented by researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey. More precisely, the robot is a device that combines miniaturized robotics and ultrasound imaging to identify suitable vessels for cannulation and robotically guide an attached needle toward the lumen center. In addition to drawing blood, the device includes a module for handling samples as well as a centrifuge-based blood analyzer.

It all sounds quite ingenious, but does it actually work? Published in the journal Technology, the first clinical trial results suggest that it does. The device drew blood from 31 participants with an overall success rate of 87%, well within acceptable clinical standards. And the success rate increased to 97% for the 25 participants with veins that were easy to access.

To put these numbers into perspective, the researchers cited studies documenting the venipuncture failure rate of clinicians fail, including:

  • 27% in patients without visible veins;
  • 40% in patients without palpable veins; and
  • 60% in patients who are emaciated.

In addition to endangering both patients and clinicians, venipuncture breakdowns can increase the time, cost and effectiveness of treatment.

“A device like ours could help clinicians get blood samples quickly, safely and reliably, preventing unnecessary complications and pain in patients from multiple needle insertion attempts,” according to lead author Josh Leipheimer, a biomedical engineering doctoral student in the School of Engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Takeaway

The Rutgers blood-drawing robot remains very much a work in progress. Among the bugs that need to be worked out is improving the success rates in patients with veins that are difficult to access. To accomplish that objective, researchers hope to use data from the study to enhance the robot’s artificial intelligence. And while actual clinical deployment is likely to take years, if it happens at all, the odds are good that at least some day the robot or a device like it will become a useful fixture in ambulances, emergency rooms, hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices.

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