Some Straight Talk on Robotics in Health Care

“We want to galvanize people’s imaginations. With enough political will and investment, we could make wheelchairs obsolete.”

Miguel Nicolelis M.D., PhD, Duke School of Medicine Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience, Duke University Professor of Neurobiology, Biomedical Engineering and Psychology and Neuroscience, and founder of Duke’s Center for Neuroengineering.
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The healthcare field is constantly looking for ways to support and evolve the care delivered to patients. In recent years, these efforts have included the incorporation of various technologies into healthcare delivery. While one such technological advancement -robotics- has yet to become a standard fixture of any healthcare organization, it is reasonable to believe that this will not remain the case for much longer. As such, it is essential to understand how robots are currently being used throughout the healthcare field, as well as how patients and healthcare professionals are receiving them.

On the topic of versatility, robotics in healthcare have been expanding the scope of their abilities for quite some time. From menial, repetitive tasks to more advanced, involved procedures, their abilities hardly end with only one or two unique applications. The truth of the matter is, they could become a staple throughout every part of a given patient’s healthcare journey.

Today robots are used for complicated surgeries, clinical training, medicine dispensing, personal care, and many others. According to the International Federation of Robotics, sales of medical robots increased by 73% compared to 2016 to 2,931 units in 2017, accounting for a share of 2.7% of the total unit sales of professional service robots. Robot-assisted surgery or therapy is the most critical application of robots in healthcare. However, the demand for other services is also increasing significantly. Let’s explore some of the top applications of robotics in healthcare.

Robotic-assisted surgeries – Surgery has emerged as one of the critical applications of robots in the past few decades and is getting much wider attention. The surgical robots offer a 3-D view along with high-definition and magnification capabilities. Robot-assisted surgeries are “minimally invasive” than traditional surgical procedures and are more precise and flexible. With advancements in technology, much progress has been achieved in 3D high-definition and magnification; it is possible to operate surgery through one or a few small incisions. Today, robots, in combination with AI, use the data from past operations to perform new surgeries and are yielding much better results. To the patients, robots mean reduced hospital stay and fewer complications. Robots are extensively used for surgical procedures such as orthopedic, urological, bariatric, gynecological, and many others. The surgical robots hold substantial future growth potential.

Clinical Training – Clinical Training Robots are realistic simulation devices that enhance the healthcare provider’s skills and knowledge. One of the latest and most advanced examples of a training robot is Pediatric Hal. Pediatric Hal is an artificial intelligence robot manufactured by Gaumard Scientific. Pediatric Hal can mimic like a five-year-old child and exhibit symptoms of cardiac arrest and arrhythmia. It can also perform a dozen facial expressions, mimic crying, and imitate rapid breathing, providing a real “working under pressure” condition to the healthcare trainees.

Pediatric Hal Image Credit: Gaumard Scientific

Prescription dispensing – Dispensing robots are used to distribute medication and handle sensitive materials in hospital settings. Dispensing robots are quite beneficial as they can dispense medicine at a very high speed and accuracy. Similarly, they can also handle sensitive liquids or viscous materials.

Care/Services – The demand for robots in the care segment is also increasing significantly. The challenges faced by the elderly population and the people affected by dementia and other mental diseases is the main driver for care robot demand. Care robots help patients perform necessary day-to-day activities such as providing mobility and transportation support, performing routine body check-ups (like temperature, blood pressure, sugar levels), fetching food and water, reminding medication, and many others. The care robots are quite handy and ease the daily burden on healthcare professionals. With the increase in capabilities and growing aging population, the demand for care robots is likely to increase in the coming years.

Disinfection and Sanitation – Hospital-acquired infections (HAI) are among the leading causes of death in the US. CDC statistics used by Xenex show that in the United States, 1 in every 25 patients will contract an HAI. Of those, 1 in 9 will die. In addition to the human cost, it takes its toll financially. These infections cost more than $30 billion a year. To carry out the disinfection and sanitation process, hospitals are deploying robots. These specialized robots scan the hospital environment and carry out the air circulating and surface disinfection process. UV sterilization robots, in particular, kill bacteria, viruses, and other harmful microorganisms that can cause infections. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the disinfection and sanitation robots segment observed a significant demand.

Image Credit: Xenex Disinfection Services

Logistics and Delivery – To perform hospitals’ logistics tasks, a new type of robot called logistics robots are available in the market today. The logistics robots are equipped with navigation systems that help them perform basic tasks such as moving food and water, lab samples, beddings, and medications within the hospital premises.

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Rehabilitation. And Physical Therapy – You have seen them in movies, take advantage of them in video games, and now they are here for real: exoskeletons. These robotic structures will genuinely give a sense of invincibility to people by helping human beings move around and lift heavy weights – or themselves. In the future, it is easy to imagine how soldiers, surgeons, but even warehouse workers, and nurses who move around patients will use exoskeletons daily to extend their muscle power, stamina, and weightlifting skills. Even the FDA recognized its utility for rehabilitation. In 2019, ReWalk Robotics, a leading exoskeleton-manufacturing company, announced that the agency cleared the company’s ReStore soft exo-suit system for sale to rehabilitation centers across the United States.

Image Credit: EksoBionics

Social Companion Robots – With the advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence, social companion robots started to take shape: these human or animal-shaped, smaller or bigger mechanic creatures can carry out different tasks and have interactions with humans and their environment. In the future, they might become every parent’s little helper in the kitchen, might support the guard dog in keeping the house safe, might teach the children and be their companion and support the elderly from reminding them to take their medication until keeping them company when they feel lonely. Jibo, Pepper, Paro, Zora, and Buddy are existing examples of caring social companion robots. Some of them even have touch sensors, cameras, and microphones. Thus their owners can get into discussions with them, ask them to find a great concert for that night, or remind them about their medications.

Image Credit: Paro Robotics USA

What are some of the benefits of robotics in health care? – The extensive use of robots in delivering healthcare services makes it crystal clear that the use of robots will be a common sight soon. With different applications and benefits, robotics in healthcare holds the potential to revolutionize the sector. It is equally beneficial to both healthcare providers and patients. The robots in the logistics, care and disinfection segment are cheaper to maintain and more comfortable to handle and train. They can handle repetitive tasks and can free up staff to do more value-added patient care.

What are some of the disadvantages of robotics in health care? – While there are innumerable benefits of employing robots to run errands in healthcare, there are chances of errors and failures. There is always some scope for human error or mechanical failure with these advanced robots. A single mechanical malfunction can cost human lives. In the case of surgical robots, small risks of infection and bleeding can’t be neglected. Another major disadvantage is the cost factor. Also, the healthcare provider needs to invest a lot of money and time to train the workforce to handle robots; besides, their lifetime maintenance cost is another problematic factor.

What is the future of robotics in health care? – With new applications and features, healthcare robots are expected to increase the quality, operational efficiencies, accuracy, and safety in healthcare service delivery. The advancement in AI will provide a new dimension to robotics. As expected, the combination of Artificial intelligence and robotics will make the operation faster and much safer. Apart from this, data analytics, improvement in hardware and software systems will diversify robots’ scope in other healthcare fields.

To reap the benefits and avoid the potential dangers of such a technological revolution, we need to keep ourselves informed about the strides that science makes to better prepare and adapt to the not-so-distant future where medical robots play a crucial role in care delivery.

5 thoughts on “Some Straight Talk on Robotics in Health Care

  1. This is really fascinating technology. It would have been out of the question just a few years ago and here it is with the potential of creating real value for healthcare ! Just a matter of time.

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