Low back pain shouldn’t be a price healthcare workers pay for taking care of patients. Now there’s an exosuit ready to help reduce that risk.

By Matt Marino, HeroWear Director of Ergonomics & Human Factors

Compassionate care has an actual weight, and in many cases, it’s the weight of the human body. Healthcare workers regularly treat, lift, and transfer their patients. These are activities which put their backs at risk for injury and pain. Nurses, certified nursing assistants, doctors, and therapists deliver treatments and assist with early patient mobility tasks, while using safe patient handling equipment and trying to use ergonomic best practices. But it’s tough. As a physical therapist (PT) myself, I have done this work in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings. And as a caretaker for a son with cerebral palsy, I experience these physical demands daily. Safe patient handling and care take a toll on the low back.

This often-overlooked risk for back pain—the elephant in the treatment room for our healthcare workers—is something we at HeroWear care deeply about. As one of our 5 Industries Ready to Reduce Back Pain, there is good news: Back-assist exosuits are becoming light enough, versatile enough, and strong enough to practically reduce risk for these workers.

Patient Handling and Problematic Postures

While patient handling equipment like Hoyer lifts exist, they are often already in use, nowhere to be found, missing the correct sling size, or there isn’t enough time to get one. So, in many instances, healthcare workers still need to manually lift and move patients for transfers, bed mobility, and treatment. In 2015, NPR ran a special series on nursing injuries highlighting the hard work that nurses do, dangerous forces they endure (even when they use “proper techniques”), and organizational considerations to help prevent debilitating injuries to these essential workers.

Surgical teams, including doctors and nurses, also need back support, since they often need to sustain awkward bending postures for long periods of time. One recent study indicated that surgical teams could foresee a long-term decrease in musculoskeletal symptoms by using exoskeletons (Cha et al., 2019).

Pain Points for Exoskeleton Adoption

Going back as far as 2001, articles have highlighted nursing and rehabilitation as appropriate fields for exoskeleton adoption, but almost 20 years later, beyond a few isolated examples, we still do not see exo technology used by healthcare workers. There are many reasons for this. Exos that make their users look like robots can be intimidating (for patients and providers both). And what if a patient grabs the exoskeleton in the event of a fall? An exoskeleton that is big and bulky could bump into medical equipment, other medical professionals, or even patients in close working conditions. And any exoskeleton that is not easily worn under personal protective equipment (PPE) might be difficult to disinfect.

And so, it’s no wonder healthcare industry adoption of exos is lagging behind industries like manufacturing and logistics. But taking on implementation barriers will be vital to help protect and sustain the men and women on the front lines of healthcare.

A Positive Prognosis for the Apex Exosuit

At HeroWear, we hear healthcare professionals loud and clear. In addition to me being a provider myself, we’ve spent the last couple years interviewing dozens of nurses, surgeons, and other medical professionals, even shadowing them on the job. And we’ve integrated their feedback into the Apex exosuit’s design. The Apex has several advantages key to opening the door for exosuits in the healthcare industry.

  • The Apex is easy to wear. Made of soft components that fit close to the body, the Apex exosuit can be put on in under 30 seconds, and worn under PPE. It weighs 3.4 lbs., and it comfortably fits men and women, especially important in a career field with so many female workers.
  • The Apex is easy to use. Able to take over 50 lbs. of strain off the back at the flip of switch, the Apex offers nurses, doctors, and healthcare workers strength on call, whether they’re lifting a patient or leaning for long periods in surgery.
  • The Apex is easy to clean and sanitize. Because the Apex can be worn under PPE, it can be less exposed to contamination, and its modular components can be cleaned and disinfected with ease.
Given the grueling physical demands placed on medical professionals across the globe in 2020, it seems likely that in the next few years we will see hospitals and healthcare systems taking a more active role in exploring the use of exos to sustain and protect their workforce. A recent pilot study investigated the potential use of back-assist exoskeletons to support healthcare workers who cope with the prone positioning in the ICU that’s required to safely maintain a large number of patients on mechanical ventilation—a common task performed during the COVID-19 outbreak (Settembre et al., 2020). The study stated that “using an exoskeleton to assist medical staff could be helpful and be readily feasible, even in the dreadful context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The adoption of lightweight, versatile exosuits like the Apex might help to reduce—or even eliminate—the nagging distraction of back pain, so that medical teams can better focus on the surgery or the patient care. So that doctors, nurses, and therapists can provide care with less strain on their backs, and go home with more energy at the end of their shift.

This article is the last of five in our 5 Industries Ready to Reduce Back Pain series. Read all five to see how the logistics, manufacturing, construction, and agriculture sectors can benefit from new, work-ready exoskeleton technology.


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