Robotic application - the next frontier in treating infectious diseases?

By Phan Hoang Lan, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab

June 24, 2020


Ohmni Labs team provides online training on how to operate the robot for doctors of the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases


Viet Nam has been heralded by international media as punching well above its weight in containing the spread of COVID-19. Despite sharing a land border with China, to this day with less than 350 positive cases were found, no death, and more than 2 months without a new case from the community, Viet Nam is considered a success story in the region. However, Viet Nam shouldn’t let it guard down yet, there are still new COVID-19 cases coming back from abroad, and the number is likely to increase once Viet Nam opens its border. Viet Nam, as many other countries, could face and should be prepared to face another wave of COVID-19. Crisis while a challenge, also presents an opportunity to accelerate innovation in healthcare services, questions such as How can we protect the safety of doctors and health workers by reducing their exposure to the virus? How can we improve the treatment of patients with infectious disease? 

These are all personal questions I faced in my own experience with being a patient. In July 2009, as I came back from the UK for my school summer holiday, I was one of the first people tested positive with H1N1 in Ha Noi. At the time each of us had our own room and received extensive care by doctors at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. However, just a few months later, so many people in the country got infected, including my mom, who later couldn’t go to the hospital anymore because it was already full, and patients could only be treated at home.

That was more than 10 years ago. I have recently had a chance to meet with the doctors in charge of treating COVID-19 patients at the Tropical Disease Hospital and coincidently, they are also the ones that treated me back then. According to them, the impact of H1N1 was nothing compared to the new virus SARS-COV2. But there are still a similar number of doctors working on the field.  The pressure for them has been greatly intensified.

Robot assisted healthcare - is the future now?

In a meeting in March 2020 among the Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Health and innovators to discuss COVID-19 response, Hospital for Tropical Diseases raised an urgent request for Vietnamese innovators to build and apply robotic technologies to deliver services such as delivering food and supplies to COVID-19 patients and in quarantined areas and disinfecting hospitals as many other countries have done.

Robotic technologies would significantly help reduce the burden on Vietnamese doctors and healthcare workers to take care of hundreds of patients and thousands of people under quarantine. Moreover, in such critical times, we can’t afford to lose our doctors and health professionals to the virus. The story of Wuhan doctors having lost their lives to COVID-19 rang a bell to the healthcare system worldwide to act quickly to prevent such a situation. Robots would be able to reduce the risks of these frontline workers from regularly being exposed to the virus, hence helping them to stay safe and being able to contribute their best to the fight against the pandemic.

Recognizing this important need, UNDP AccLab Viet Nam have scanned through different robotic solutions in Viet Nam and found two prominent robots that are ready for testing and scaling up: Ohmni and BeetleBot. These are made by two startups - Ohmni Labs, from Silicon Valley, USA, but with a Vietnamese co-founder and a development team in Viet Nam; and AIOZ, from Ho Chi Minh City. The former is able to meet and greet patients, perform remote diagnosis, treatment and healthcare training; and the latter transfers food and supplies to patients autonomously without human control. These robots will be delivered to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases at the end of June 2020.





BeetleBot and Ohmni robots are ready for testing and scaling up

What have we learned?

  • It is easy to introduce a new technology but much harder to ensure its sustainability

We found out that most of the robotic solutions in the country are made by universities and research institutions. Even though these are timely innovations made by Vietnamese innovators to support the healthcare sector, some prominent setbacks still present as these robots are in R&D stage. Moreover, the technology commercialization capacity of Vietnamese universities and research institutions is often considered quite low. This is also why some of these robots have been tested in hospitals and quarantine areas but when asked about commercialization and scale-up plan, the innovators had little idea.

In contrast, Ohmni and BeetleBot are made by two technology startups with the ready business model and capacity to commercialize their products after being tested. Supporting them adheres to one of the AccLab principles, which is to experiment with a scaling strategy in mind!

  • There are many ways that robotic technologies can provide support to the healthcare sector, not just for COVID response

Viet Nam is a tropical country that regularly suffers from many infectious diseases such as Hepatitis A and B, and dengue fever, let alone being vulnerable to other global infectious disease outbreaks such as the SARS, avian influenza A(H5N1), influenza A(H5N6) and the pandemic strain of influenza A(HINI).

Having these robots will help increase the safety of our healthcare workers in times of dealing with such outbreaks. Moreover, rather than taking over jobs of regular hospital employees, they would work to complement employees work by taking on menial tasks in highly dangerous, infectious areas of tertiary hospitals. They will also be able to familiarize the healthcare sector with the application of IR4.0 technology to improve the quality and efficiency of their services. For example, with remote areas where there is a lack of high-skill doctors and healthcare workers, these robots can help with remote training, diagnose and treatment.

  • Supporting national production and knowledge creation is as important as providing robotic application to the healthcare sector

Besides the value bringing in to the healthcare sector, we’ve asked ourselves: How can we help the development of Vietnamese entrepreneurs? Both Thuc Vu, the Vietnamese co-founder and CEO of Ohmni Labs, and Quang Tran, Chief of AI of AIOZ, shared with us that they would “love to introduce (their) robots to the Vietnamese market but didn’t know the way or have the relationship to do so”. With UNDP’s support, they can test, learn and upgrade their robots to better fit Vietnamese customers for later scale-up. Thuc Vu also said that Ohmni Labs will be able to accelerate introducing their production in Viet Nam if the test finishes successfully.  Moreover, by bringing and testing two complimenting robots together, we can help the two teams learn from each other and maybe collaborate for a better version of both.

Furthermore, UNDP will go beyond supporting individual robots by helping create an ecosystem around them. First, we will convene the collective intelligence of different robot makers in the country, reaching out to both innovators from public organizations and private sector entrepreneurs, those that otherwise, are still working very much in silos. Then, we will raise an open dialogue between hospitals, healthcare system stakeholders and robot makers to understand the opportunities and challenges, the “customer need” and the necessary infrastructure and policy support to ensure the successful robotic application.  Once, the mutual understanding is reached, then organic growth naturally follows.

As I discussed this concept with the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, the doctors that treated me back then wish that they had these robots for all this time. But later is better than never. This a proud step that UNDP takes towards helping Vietnamese hospitals and healthcare sector be better prepared for epidemic shocks that may happen in the future as well as for the IR 4.0 trend that Viet Nam is riding on.


An appreciation of this blog editors goes to my Lab teammate and Head of Solutions Mapping Nguyen Tuan Luong, UNDP Resident Representative in Viet Nam Caitlin Wiesen and our Communication Officer, Nguyen Viet Lan