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HEALTH

Italian hospitals turn to robots to help monitor coronavirus patients

Robots are helping to check infected patients' vital signs at hospitals in northern Italy, easing the burden on healthcare workers at the epicentre of Italy's coronavirus outbreak.

Italian hospitals turn to robots to help monitor coronavirus patients
A robot monitors a coronavirus patient at a hospital in Varese, northern Italy. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The shiny new robots gently check the pulses of highly infectious patients on life support in the Italian epicentre of Covid-19.

The doctors and nurses love them because they also help save their own lives.

Italians have seen the world around them turn unrecognisable from the various lockdowns and social distancing measures used to fight the new coronavirus outbreak.

But little appears to have pained them as much as seeing dozens of doctors and nurses die while trying to save the tens of thousands of patients who have suddenly ended up in hospitals across Italy's pandemic-hit north.

READ ALSO:  'I'm just doing my job': On call with Italy's coronavirus doctors treating patients at home

The country's medical association said on Friday that at least 70 medics have died from various causes since Italy recorded the first official Covid-19 death on February 21.

The fear is that an overwhelmingly majority of the 70 would still be alive today had they been better protected against the coronavirus.

This helps explain why the doctors are nurses in a hospital near Italy's mountainous border with Switzerland are laughing behind their face masks while posing for photos with their new robot friends.


Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The Varese hospital has received six of the sleek and slightly human-looking machines on wheels.

Some are white and have screens and various sensors in place of a human head. Others are simpler and look a little like a black broomstick on wheels.

The doctors say the robots bring smiles from the younger patients. But their real purpose is to help save doctors from both catching and spreading the disease.

READ ALSO: Nearly 8,000 doctors volunteer for Italy's coronavirus task force

“Robots are tireless assistants that can't get infected, that can't get sick,” said the Circolo Hospital's intensive care unit director Francesco Dentali.

“Doctors and nurses have been hit hard by this virus. The fact that the robots can't get infected is a great achievement.”

The readings from the machines allows medics to stay out of the intensive care units and monitor patients' vital signs on computer screens in separate rooms.

Italy's death toll, the worst globally, topped 15,000 this weekend.

Doctors doubt the official figures and think the real number of dead may be twice as high in Varese's Lombardy region.

Italy is expected to remain under a general lockdown at least through the end of the month.

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HEALTH

Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

From ear piercings to flu jabs, Italian ‘farmacie’ are among the most useful stores in the country, but they’re also very odd places. Here are our tips on getting through the pharmacy experience.

Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

Italian pharmacies aren’t just stores selling prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

As a customer, you’ll find all sorts of natural remedies, basic health supplies and personal care items on their shelves. 

You’ll also be able to receive basic medical services (for instance, blood pressure checks, Covid tests and flu jabs) and some non-health-related ones (like getting your ears pierced!) in most branches. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I still get the flu vaccine in Italy? 

But, while being extremely useful stores, Italian farmacie (pronunciation available here) are also peculiar places and their set of unwritten rules and solidified traditions may well throw off newcomers.. 

So here are five tips that might help you complete your first expeditions to your local pharmacy without making a fool of yourself.

1 – Decipher your doctor’s scribbles before your trip

Much like some of their foreign colleagues, Italian GPs have a penchant for writing prescriptions that no one else is actually able to read. 

We might never find out why doctors seem so intent on making ancient hieroglyphs fashionable again, but their calligraphic efforts will surely get in the way of you trying to buy whatever medicine you need to survive. 

To avoid hiccups, make sure you know exactly what you need to get. If in doubt, reach out to your GP to confirm.

Don’t rely on pharmacists being able to figure out your doctor’s handwriting because they often have no clue either.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy 

Pharmacy in Codogno, near Milan

In most small towns and rural areas local pharmacies have very ‘thin’ opening hours. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

2 – Double-check the pharmacy’s opening times

If you’re from the UK or the US, you might be used to pharmacies being open from 8am to 10pm on weekdays and having slightly reduced opening times over the weekend. 

You can forget about that in Italy. In big cities, most pharmacies will shut no later than 8pm on weekdays and will be closed on either Saturdays or Sundays.

READ ALSO: Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Italy 

As for small towns or villages, opening times will have a nice Middle Ages vibe to them, with local stores remaining shut on weekends and keeping their doors open from 9am to 12.30pm and then from 3.30pm to 7.30pm on weekdays. 

So always check your local pharmacy’s hours before leaving home and, should their times not be available online, call them up. An awkward phone conversation with the pharmacist is still preferable to a wasted trip.

3 – Get the ‘numerino

Some Italian pharmacies have a ticket-dispensing machine with the aim of regulating the queue – a concept which is still foreign to many across the country.

All customers are expected to get a numbered paper ticket (the famed ‘numerino’) from the above machine and wait for their number to be called to walk up to the pharmacist’s desk. 

Now, the law of the land categorically prohibits customers from getting within a five-metre radius of the desk without a numerino

Also, trying to break that rule may result in a number of disdainful sideways glances from local customers.

4 – You cannot escape the in-store conversations, so embrace them 

Pharmacies aren’t just stores. They’re a cornerstone of Italian life and locals do a good deal of socialising on the premises. 

After all, the waiting times are often a bit dispiriting, so how can you blame them for killing the time?

Small pharmacy in Italy

Pharmacies are an essential part of Italian life and culture. Photo by Marco SABADIN / AFP

You might think that locals won’t want to talk to you because you’re a foreigner or don’t know the language too well, but you’ll marvel at how chatty some are.

While chit-chat might not be your cup of tea, talking with locals might help you improve your Italian, so it’s worth a shot.

5 – “Vuoi scaricarlo?”

The pharmacist finally gets you what you need and you’re now thinking that your mission is over. Well, not yet.

Before charging you for the items in question, the pharmacist will ask you whether you’d like to ‘scaricarli’ (literally, ‘offload them’) or not, which, no matter how good your Italian is, will not make any sense to you.

What the pharmacist is actually asking you is whether you want to link the purchase to your codice fiscale (tax code). 

READ ALSO: Codice fiscale: How to get your Italian tax code (and why you need one)   

That’s because Italy offers residents a 19-percent discount on some health-related expenses, which can be claimed through one’s annual income declaration (dichiarazione dei redditi) by attaching the receipts of all the eligible payments.

Whether you want to scaricare or not, this is the last obstacle before you can make your way back home.

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