Healthcare Robotics

Robots are widely used to assist humans in repetitive and physically demanding work or for things that need accuracy and precision in nearly every industry. Although currently healthcare robots are more widespread in professional clinical services, they can potentially become popular for personal use as well.

For some, robots are a matter of science fiction but interest in healthcare robotics has crossed beyond fiction. There is serious level of interest and a fair amount of effort is being spent in trying to see how and in which areas they may have greatest impact. The European Foresight Monitoring Network identified main innovation themes: robotics for medical interventions, robotised technology, professional care support, robots assisted preventative therapy, diagnosis and rehabilitation treatment. Further six areas of support were announced by the European Commission Framework Programme. They identified smart medical capsules, intelligent prosthetics, monitoring systems, robotised surgery, robotised motor coordination analysis systems and robot assisted cognitive and social therapies as particularly relevant based on the market, industrial and socio-economic potential.

Prostheses are no longer somewhat natural looking ‘placeholders’ of a missing body part, they can often enhance function

Prosthetics and Exoskeletons:
Prostheses are getting smarter over time. In the future, prosthesis will be controlled by the peripheral nervous system and brain directly (led by significant developments in the brain computer interface technologies) and will allow even for prosthetic finger innervation. Prostheses are no longer somewhat natural looking ‘placeholders’ of a missing body part, they can often enhance function. The field of prosthetics is now evolving into making exoskeletons. These wearable, artificially intelligent, bionic devices enable wheelchair users to walk again. It is fitted on over clothing and can be controlled either by gesture-based interface sensing or a simpler control pad and a joystick. They have been very costly so far, however, with time the price should drop and their popularity will definitely grow.

My robot is my surgeon…
Some may say that robots have all the best characteristics of a good surgeon with the probable exception of good bed-side manner. They are accurate, precise and reliable, don’t get tired. For instance, robotics surgery systems like the ones made by  intuitive surgical  can not only achieve much higher precision in making incisions or targeting sites for radiotherapy using systems like cyberknife systems, but they also prevent surgeon’s hand tremor and allow for advanced real time imaging techniques during the operation. In the future, telesurgical robot systems will enable surgeons to perform a procedure from a distance, or will allow several surgeons to operate together from different locations. In fact, as early as 2010 one brave patient went under a remote controlled knife for prostate surgery after being anesthetised by a fully automated anaesthesia robot called McSleepy! However, telesurgery is not the main area of focus for many surgical robot companies.

Robots are expected to advance enough to perform certain pre-programmed operations autonomously which would bring a huge advantage to rural hospitals without the access to a specialist. Before it becomes a reality, it is more likely that telemedicine infrastructure will be introduced for remote doctor and patient interaction and diagnosis.

Robots in the ‘Inner Space’…
Spielberg’s Oscar winning film, “Inner Space” may have come before its time but many recent applications of robots are similar to those portrayed in it (admittedly, the shrinking of humans to actually pilot these capsules is not on the agenda yet). Tiny medical robots (or smart capsules) that remain in the abdominal cavity in order to monitor sites of medical interest or even travel within blood vessels are under development. Currently, simpler versions of such a system is a camera called capsule endoscope which travels through the intestines of a patient beaming pictures of what it sees and collecting samples.  Robotics Lab at the Technion has fitted such a robot with a magnetic drive for mobility which has proven to be effective.

Robots as carers…
As we get older we need more physical support, robots can also contribute significantly to nursing, including assistance and care for elderly and disabled patients. It is not rocket science to see that the future needs of physical care may only be met if certain routine tasks can and should be performed by robots leaving qualified humans to do things that require greater human interaction. Robots can collect patient data and monitor certain signals to avoid emergencies like heart failure or high blood sugar but at least in the near future they won’t be replacing nurses completely in these tasks they need to be able to synthesise the information, assess it clinically and take action.

Robots can assist independent living as well, e.g. robotic surrogates for movement are being developed. A patient will be in control of a mobile structure that can grasp and bring certain items, wipe a spill and even give a shave (e.g. PR2 robot, Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech). It will be possible to indicate a location of an object using a simple laser pen. Another robot for dropped object retrieval is undergoing trials with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patients.

You may have seen the video of robots lifting patients or the even more sophisticated one which can wash your hair. Patient lifting systems are being developed as well: RIBA 2 is designed to lift patients off the floor or bed into a wheelchair. It is soft to touch, moves around on wheels and responds to voice commands. In addition, pharmacy and courier robots are already utilised in several hospitals. It is also important to note that they will be available 24/7, which is a huge advantage over pricey overnight staff options.

Robot assisted mental, cognitive and social therapy will also play a role in healthcare. Some robots can perform fairly simple mental stimulation tasks for small children or elder people to avoid cognitive decline. For instance, robot Kaspar is currently undergoing trials with autistic children. There are also robots which help children with Type 1 Diabetes to keep a diary.

Of course, we could also add to this long list robotised systems in pharma/biotech industries which should improve the quality and sterility of their products but they are more peripheral and industrial applications and something which is expected to happen to every industry eventually.