How robots are transforming healthcare

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Are robots the future of medicine and healthcare? Take a look into a tech world that’s yet to come…

For years, researchers have been stating that robotics has the potential to be as transformative as the internet.

In the field of medicine, robots that combine super-human precision and robotic accuracy are being used in surgical theatres, diagnostic rooms, rehabilitation clinics and doctors’ practices. In the last few years alone, there’s been more than 40% annual growth in the number of medical procedures performed using robots.

Not surprisingly, several disciplines including cardiothoracic, gynaecology, urology, orthopaedics, neurology and general surgery are making use of robots to provide context-appropriate guidance.

Nowadays, surgical robots are able to transcend human physical limitations in performing surgery and other interventional procedures while still having human control over the procedure and enhancing the a procedure’s effectiveness by pairing information to action.

When the strengths of the robot – accuracy, dexterity in a small scale, and advanced sensory capabilities – are combined with the strengths of the human – domain knowledge, advanced decision-making, and unexpected problem-solving – it has many benefits in surgery, such as:

  • Reducing the number of complications by 80%.
  • Improving existing medical procedures and developing new ones.
  • Being less invasive, reducing pain and improving patient safety.
  • Decreasing the number of days spent in hospital.
  • Resulting in significantly faster recovery times, so that patients can return to work and their
  • normal lives.
  • Reducing the overall cost of care in medical procedures.
  • Forming part of a computer-integrated surgery system to enable accurate, targeted medical interventions.

How robots are used in healthcare
When using the concept of shared control (also referred to as a “human-machine collaborative system”), the surgeon directly controls a surgical robot by manipulating a master input device while the patient-side robot follows their medical input at the patient’s side.

Unlike conventional minimally invasive surgery, robots allow surgeons enhanced dexterity to navigate inside the body. In addition, robotic technology can enable a surgeon to use flexible snake- like steerable instruments to reach deep into the anatomy through a small incision in laparoscopic- style surgery.

This allows surgeons to cut, remove tissue, cauterise and suture with the same or better accuracy than was previously only available during highly invasive open surgery. These minimally invasive instruments are designed to protect vital anatomical structures, avoid intentional tissue damage and function effectively with micro-precision in an environment characterised by variable temperature, debris and moistness.

A vital element of all medical robots is a perception capability. This enables the robot to use sensor data and models to develop an understanding of a specific environment, task or user.

For example, during image-guided surgery, a surgeon will rely on the robot to utilise special sensors to analyse and convert image data into useful information about particular body features such as internal organs, hurdles such as the spinal cord during orthopaedic surgery, and target areas like a tumour embedded in the abdomen.

Types of medical robotics
For some time, researchers have been predicting that integrating computers and robotics in surgery and interventional radiology will transform medicine, much like automation revolutionised manufacturing decades ago.

These are just some examples of how robots are currently being used in healthcare:

  • Telerobotic systems such as the Da Vinci Surgical System are being used to perform surgery, resulting in shorter recovery times and more reliable outcomes in some procedures.
  • Haptic devices, a form of robotics that focuses on the technology of touch, are already used for simulations to train medical personnel. A haptic device offers a natural interface because it provides feedback to the user that mimics what they would experience in the real world. This haptic feedback can improve performance in terms of efficiency and accuracy.
  • Health research: Robotics technology also has a role in enhancing basic research into human health. Robotic systems that mimic biology and accurately obtain data from biological systems play a valuable role in studying and assessing functioning of the human body and brain, as well as physical and social behaviour.
  • New treatments: Revolutionary efforts in advancing robotic technology are paving the way for the development of new medical procedures and devices such as micro-scale interventions and smart prostheses. In addition, researchers are working towards utilising robots to devise innovative new treatments for a wide variety of conditions and diseases.
  • Assistive robotics provides access to treatment in both natural disasters (e.g. tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes) and man-made disasters (terrorist attacks, mass mining accidents and war zones). In disaster scenarios, injured people need to be accessed and treated on-site, often in hazardous environments.
  • Telemedicine – via a remote robotic telepresence such as VGo and InTouch – can assist people living in remote areas far from doctors or medical centres that provide specialised healthcare. This system can be utilised in various settings, including acute and post- operative care, therapy and rehabilitation as well as long-term management of chronic conditions. While existing telepresence robots only provide visual and voice communication, equipping a robotic telepresence with higher manipulation capabilities will mean that, in future, doctors will be able to diagnose, treat and even comfort patients.
  • Diagnostic interventions: These include capsule endoscopes and sensing smart pills, highly dexterous miniature devices that can enter the body through tiny incisions. They travel through areas and along tissue planes with minimal damage to perform diagnostic procedures or delicate repairs.
  • Digital record keeping: Surgical robots are capable of creating a complete record of a surgical intervention using digital endoscopy.
  • In future, minute tetherless (wireless) robots will be able to either move through or reside in the body and be activated remotely to perform repairs or adapt physiological functions.

Image via Thinkstock

Sources:
1. A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics from Internet to Robotics; Chapter 2: Roadmap for Healthcare and Medical Robotics 2013 Edition. www.robotics-vo.us
2. Proceedings of the IROS 2013 Workshop on Neuroscience and Robotics “Towards a robot-enabled, Neuroscience-guided healthy society”, Tokyo Japan. November 2013.