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The Robot Will See You Now

From 65-inch TVs to rooftop gardens to salmon entrées delivered by bots, UCSF's new medical center defines the 21st-century hospital.


The Medical Center took more than 10 years to design.

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Robots called TUGs deliver food and linens.

Photo: Courtesy of UCSF/Elisabeth Fall

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The media wall in a patient room.

Photo: Courtesy of UCSF

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If you didn’t know better, you’d think that you were on a cruise ship. The bed faces a 65-inch flat-screen TV with access to Facebook, Skype, movies, and video games, all controlled by a bedside tablet. Breakfast in bed—and lunch and dinner in bed, for that matter—is delivered to order in 15-minute windows; the dinner menus span everything from wild salmon to grass-fed-beef stew. Gluten-free? No problem. On calorie restriction? You can’t order above your allotment for the day. Robots (known as TUGs) bring your meals from the kitchen. That’s right: robot waiters. And you can admire bay views through the huge windows while you eat.

But as luxurious as this room feels, it’s still in a hospital, one of three in UCSF’s new Medical Center at Mission Bay. The state-of-the-art, 289-bed complex serves kids waiting for bone marrow transplants, cancer patients, and at-risk pregnant women, as well as healthy mothers and babies.

The facility’s list of high-end amenities is impressive. There are 60,000 square feet of rooftop gardens as well as several meditation rooms. Teens can hang out in their own lounge, and all kids have access to music therapy. Families attend weekly bingo games, which room-bound patients can watch and participate in via closed-circuit television.

A lot of thought went into all of this. During the complex’s 10-year gestation, countless planning committees—which included doctors, nurses, therapists, and patients—worked to ensure that every detail, from those huge TVs to the robots, was tailored to improve the wellness of patients and their loved ones. “It’s really about humanizing the experience for families as much as possible in an otherwise abnormal environment,” says Kim Scurr, a registered nurse and the executive director of one of the Medical Center’s hospitals, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital SF.

That means that the TV screen in every room automatically updates with the names and photos of the care team assigned to that room’s patient at any given hour, so they never have to wonder which nurse is on duty. Along with movies, they can access instructional videos on topics from wound care to keeping up with dialysis—and also watch them from home later. “Any nurse will tell you that any piece of educational material we give patients is usually provided at our convenience—not theirs,” Scurr says. “Now they have the ability to see these videos when they want, as many times as they want.”

At Mission Bay, women with difficult pregnancies are in rooms away from a nursery full of healthy babies; kids who can’t leave a sterile environment can see and play with their siblings through a glass window; and children who’ve been in the hospital for months can go to a real classroom with an SFUSD-accredited teacher. Birthing suites are private and come with Jacuzzi tub; doctors and nurses are texted instead of paged to keep noise to a minimum; and sofas convert into beds for expectant fathers and parents of sick kids, allowing them to stay overnight with their loved ones.

Taylor Wrinkle, who has already been hospitalized for 10 weeks as doctors monitor her pregnancy, has never felt stuck there. The monitoring technology is portable, so she can go outside. And she and her husband, Matt Pope, have been able to use the hospital Wi-Fi to work. “This has really become our second home,” she says. “We call it our San Francisco apartment. I don’t think we’ve even heard one woman in labor.”

That may change for Wrinkle, though. She’s been using that omnipresent Wi-Fi to fill out medical school applications.



Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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