Rise of the machines: the reality of robotics in medicine

18 May 2012 5min read

Team Discussion

Multiple authors

In the field of robotics technology, there have been many advances over the last couple of decades, with successful application in various industries such as automotive manufacture. According to the International Federation of Robotics, there are over 17 million robots in use worldwide, and the number of robots doubles approximately every 2.5 years.

However, until now the advances in medical robots has not been as pronounced… but times are changing!

As the healthcare providers push for lower costs and better clinical outcomes than existing techniques, I believe we can expect to see some exciting developments in the next 10 years. The advantages offered by robots include higher diagnostic efficacy, fewer errors, less complications, and reduced hospitalization time and cost.

Few medical robots will look like C-3PO, the Terminator or the Daleks, but some have a passing resemblance to R2-D2 or Wall-E. Here is a brief outlook on some of the medical fields that robots are being used in:

  • Surgical Robots – One of the more advanced areas is surgical robotics, in which a robot performs surgery under the control of a surgeon. Systems such as Magellan and Sensei X from Hansen Medical, and da Vinci from Intuitive Surgical all enable minimally invasive surgeries through improved visualisation, dexterity and precision. The use of much smaller incisions often means quicker healing, and lower risks of infection and other complications.
  • Maintaining Organs – When donated organs are retrieved, they have previously needed to be packed in ice and rushed to the transplant hospital. Systems like the OrganOx Metra – the normothermic organ perfusion system designed and developed by Team – enable the preservation of organs for much longer time periods, and objective viability assessment prior to transplantation. These systems will help to increase the number and quality of organs for transplant.
  • Cognitive Therapy – From Japan, we have Paro, a therapeutic seal robot. Studies have found that interacting with Paro was found to improve the brain function of elderly patients with cognition disorders, and so improve the quality of their lives and decrease the need for long term care.
  • Aging Populations – As many nations deal with the challenges associated with aging populations, robots will be of great assistance to the elderly and the healthcare systems. Some will help to remind users to take their medicine, some will help to open doors, and some like RIBA will help lift those who are not able to sit, walk or stand themselves.
  • Drug Dispensing – Intravenous drug delivery is the most powerful route to administer drugs but when things go wrong, it has the most devastating consequences. Solutions such as IntelliFill i.v.from Baxa are designed to automate the intravenous drug preparation process, and can fill infusion bags and syringes more quickly than people. They typically use barcode scanning, vision systems, and weight confirmation steps to identify final products and to reduce medication errors, and they reduce staff exposure to highly aggressive therapies.In any medium or large hospital, the pharmacy can expect to fill and dispense over 5,000 prescriptions every day, handling over 700 different medications. This is both time consuming and mundane, and human operators do make mistakes. Robots are ideal for tasks like this, and the ScriptPro 200 and ROBOT-Rx have both been used to great effect – to the extent that as of 2009, the ROBOT-Rx had given out more than 45 million doses without any mistakes.
  • Sample Storage – Biobanks of varying sizes have been designed, developed and installed which enable the safe storage of biological samples in sub-zero conditions. The Polar system from TAP Biosystems is a network of robotic armature apparatus and temperature components that stores and retrieves up to 10 million perishable samples, at temperatures of -80°C. By using a robot to do the work of sample retrieval, humans won’t have to suit up and enter the extreme cold environment and work time will be quickened.

Developing medical robots is a complex, expensive and long process, however, the need – whether that is reducing the cost, eliminating mistakes or opening up new opportunities – is there and the technology exists. A solid understanding of the clinical environment is essential if the technology is to be harnessed to meet the user needs, but the possibilities are endless.

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