Healthcare Robotics

Picture by Paul Downey

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.

There is growing interest in healthcare robotics and several areas of innovation have been identified. A report by 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.

Prosthetics and Exoskeletons:
Prostheses are getting smarter over time. In the future, prosthesis will be controlled by the peripheral nervous system and brain directly 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 prosthtics 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. Theoretically, current surgical robots could support telesurgery, however, this isn’t the main focus of many companies involved.

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’…
Those who remember the Spielberg’s Oscar winning film, “Inner Space” may find it easier to visualise this but robots will one day be exploring our insides. Tiny medical robots (or smart capusules) 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…
Robots can also contribute significantly to nursing, including assistance and care for elderly and disabled patients. With the aging population, global shortage in hospital staff and decreasing nurse to patient ratio, certain routine tasks can and should be performed by robots. They can collect patient data and monitor certain signals to avoid emergencies like heart failure or high blood sugar, however, to fully replace a nurse 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.

Despite their current technical limitations, they can be a valuable addition to nursing staff in terms of freeing them from many routine tasks: robots will be able to bathe or feed patients or at least assist with this task, although it carries a risk of accidentally removing some sensors or other medical equipment. 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.

It’s also worth mentioning the advantages of robotised systems in pharma/biotech industries which should improve the quality and sterility of their products, speed up quality control and manufacturing processes and eventually have a positive impact on the R&D and the end product price.

Over time, consistent introduction of robotics in healthcare can have societal and economic benefits as well as offer sustainable and affordable health services of excellent quality. Although robots in healthcare seem to be rather expensive, the fact that they are being introduced in developing countries proves that they are considered to be cost-effective.