Healthcare robots as assistants and caregivers

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In some markets, such as Japan, robots have been helping in hospitals and retirement homes for many years. A new generation of robots (cobots), powered by AI and machine learning, is now taking a more active role in treating patients.

The first medical assistance robots arrived in the 1980s. Surgeons used robotic arm technologies to perform complex procedures where access was difficult and additional precision was required. Nowadays, the use of advanced computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming medical robotics. Many different types of robots are now taking up various tasks in several areas of healthcare.

Surgical-assistance robots

New technologies such as AI, machine learning, and computer vision allow surgeons to perform complex operations reaching new levels of precision, speed, and security. In some cases, autonomous robots perform some basic tasks automatically, monitored by the surgeon from a control room.

Machine learning and computer vision allow surgical robots to help surgeons during complex procedures to differentiate between tissues such as nerves and muscles. Also, some robots, aided by high-definition 3D imaging, can take over small tasks such as high-precision suturing.

For example, the da Vinci system, created in 2000 by Intuitive Surgical, was designed to support doctors performing minimally invasive heart bypass surgery. Later, in 2003, they merged with their largest existing competitor, Computer Motion. The current fourth generation of da Vinci provides 3D visualization and wristed instruments in an ergonomic platform. It is considered the standard for multiple laparoscopic procedures and is used in nearly 75 percent of a million procedures annually. The company aims to target new procedural segments such as colorectal, transoral, and transanal segments of surgeries, providing physical and data platforms for studying the surgery process. For example, the company’s My Intuitive App helps surgeons and hospital managers uncover trends during surgery. They can see which instruments are being used, how many training sessions they had, and much more.

Autonomous robots are increasingly more intelligent and beginning to edge their way into the operating room. In a recent study, a group of surgeons used a Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) to perform a completely autonomous soft-tissue surgery, a procedure called intestinal anastomosis.

Exoskeletons

Every year, thousands of people worldwide suffer accidents or other unforeseen events that cause neurological injuries, partially or fully impairing their mobility.

With proper care and assisted mobility, many patients could recover from some or all of their injuries. For those with irreversible spine damage, assisted mobility could dramatically improve their quality of life. Post-surgery recovery can be significantly enhanced with the help of mobility robots like exoskeletons.

In the past 20 years, new technologies and devices to help people with mobility impairment have been developed. Specific types of exoskeletons, for example, can help patients regain some locomotion or dexterity.

These robots are transforming the healing processes in which intense physical therapy helps to train the body to move normally again. Exoskeletons can help patients physically and boost their confidence, leading to quicker healing. Unfortunately, the technology for assisted mobility is expensive and not widely available.

In Catalonia, a team from the Barcelona Polytechnic University (UPC) worked for the past eight years to create the ABLE Exoskeleton. The ABLE Exoskeleton is a lightweight device for patients with a spinal cord injury at neurological levels from cervical spine C7 to lumbar spine L5.

The current ABLE design incorporates the latest technologies in robotics, electric motors, 3D printing, cloud computing, and wireless connectivity.

Social robots

In Japan, social robots that interact directly with people have been in use in hospitals and care centers for many years. The “friendly” robots provide social interaction and monitoring.

Socially assistive robots (SARs) have the potential to assist non-pharmacological interventions based on verbal communication such as the support and care of persons with dementia (PwDs). Establishing verbal communication with a PwD takes time and effort; a robot can stay with a patient as much as necessary, providing companionship and interaction.

Today, robots are present in many countries because of their demonstrated benefits in treatment and companionship, especially in elder care. The robots can help remind patients to take medication and keep them alert by providing cognitive engagement. SARs’ primary benefit today is reducing the workload of caregivers and nurses by assisting patients autonomously.

One example is Pepper, a humanoid robot made by Softbank Robotics, which is the first social robot to recognize faces and basic human emotions. Pepper is 120 cm in height and features four microphones in its head, two HD cameras in its mouth and forehead, and a 3-D depth sensor behind its eyes.

Pepper can perform several simple tasks like leading exercises and engaging with older people who may not have conversation skills. We should note that Pepper must be monitored by a healthcare practitioner who understands how to operate it.

Service robots

Another everyday use of robots in healthcare is to assist in routine logistical tasks such as cleaning, tracking supplies, restocking cabinets, transporting equipment within the facilities, etc.

The TUG Robot by Aethon is a service robot doing just that. TUG can navigate complex and changing environments to safely deliver linens to nursing units on a schedule or an as-needed basis.

Service robots can also help with cleaning and disinfection. In healthcare facilities like hospitals, sanitation and cleanliness are of the utmost importance. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries took advantage of existing technologies like robotics and AI to help prevent the spread of viruses.

The robots may use ultraviolet (UV) light, hydrogen peroxide vapors, or air filtration to help reduce infection and sanitize reachable places uniformly. An autonomous mobile robot prototype developed by the startup Akara is being tested for one of these routine yet essential tasks: disinfecting contaminated surfaces using UV light. Its goal is to help hospitals sanitize rooms and equipment, aiding in the fight against the virus.

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The future of robotics in healthcare

As machine learning, data analytics, computer vision, and other technologies advance, medical robotics will evolve to complete tasks more autonomously, efficiently, and accurately.

Healthcare robotics now use advanced imaging and augmented and virtual reality for training and monitoring procedures. New simulation platforms help surgeons plan procedures and practice complex tasks before attempting them on patients.

In many countries, healthcare professionals are scarce. Government health services and private providers are finding it much more difficult to fill the positions of doctors and nurses.

We could imagine a near future where robots entirely replace doctors, nurses, and other caregivers in some tasks like diagnosis, basic surgery, and daily care. Before replacing healthcare professionals with machines, we will have to consider the human factor and impacts from a sociological standpoint. There will also have to be changes made to many existing regulations in order for this future to become reality.

As robots continue to develop in capability and complexity, we will interact with them more in our daily lives — including at healthcare and assisted living facilities.

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