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Robots Become Reliable Assistants for Healthcare Professionals and Patients

Going in for surgery in 2030 could look like this: the patient is greeted by a smiling robot receptionist and asked to fill in personal information. Then the patient is led to a wardroom that has been disinfected by a service robot. On the day of surgery, the surgeon is in the operation room; but rather than standing next to the patient, he sits at a console, from where he can view the operation field and control his surgical-assistance robot to perform the surgery through a tiny incision.  This vision of the future may not be too far off the mark. Already today, different robots are taking over some of the most demanding jobs in hospitals and accessing the hard-to-reach parts of human bodies.

The Seven Revolutions in Healthcare That Will Impact Your Life – Part 6

(Missed the previous one? You can read Part 5 here – Defy Aging and Stay Healthy for 100 Years)

Surgical robots: smaller incision and more precise cutting

In 1985, the first documented surgical robot, PUMA560, was used to insert a needle into a patient’s brain for biopsy.1

Surgical-assistance robots have since been developed for use in two main surgical fields – minimally invasive general surgeries and orthopedic surgeries.2  

The da Vinci Surgical System is the most widely used robotic surgical system today. It consists of a console, a set of wristed instruments that move similarly to a human hand but with more flexibility, and a 3D-vision system. The surgeon can view a virtual surgical field on a monitor while controlling the movement of the instruments through the console. The size of the instruments makes it possible to operate through very small incisions accurately. Minimizing surgery incisions could help to reduce infections and other complications. The system can be used for surgeries on the stomach, liver, heart, and many other organs.

robots healthcare

Another area that has benefited significantly from surgical robot is orthopedic surgery, especially joint replacement surgeries. With the population getting older, knee and hip replacements have become two of the most common orthopedic surgeries. However, a 2021 study found that 20 percent of the patients who have undergone knee replacements are not satisfied with their outcomes. It also found that malalignment and bone cutting inaccuracy are two of the major factors associated with poor clinical outcomes.3 Robotic-assisted systems use 3D modeling of bone anatomy to create an individualized and optimized surgical plan. At the same time, tactile feedback is used to ensure the accuracy of the surgery.   

In the future, surgical robots are expected to obtain perception skills so they can see, hear, and feel their surroundings. Artificial intelligence will also make surgical robots smarter and perform some automated tasks. In 2020, a team from the University of California Berkeley developed a deep-learning system to teach robots to perform automated suturing by watching actual doctors perform on surgical videos.4

Exoskeletons help patients back on their feet

Robotic exoskeletons, also called powered exoskeletons, support and enhance human motion. One of the most famous exoskeletons is the suit worn by Iron Man in the Hollywood movie of the same name. While real-life exoskeletons cannot fly or carry weapons arsenals, they can enable paralyzed patients and amputees to walk again.   

Today, robotic exoskeletons are already commercially available in hospitals, homes, and community settings to improve patients’ physical and psychological well-being as well as their quality of life. In a 2020 study, patients with spinal cord injury found that exoskeletons provided the psychological benefits of being at eye level with their healthy peers. However, it is still not practical to use exoskeletons for activities of daily living due to limitations such as fitting time, speed, and cost of the device.5

robots healthcare
“The biggest thing for me is to be able to talk to somebody face to face standing up. It’s okay being in a chair, you’re still communicating the same way. But to look them right in the eye as your talking to them is a big deal.” – A spinal cord injury patient describes how they feel about using a robotic exoskeleton.6

Nanorobots deliver drugs to where they are needed

No matter whether we swallow a pill, get an injection, or receive a nasal spray, the medication will be absorbed into the bloodstream, then distributed not only to its targeting location but also throughout the body. Delivering drugs in a more targeted manner can improve treatment efficiency and reduce side effects.

One targeted drug delivery approach is through tiny robots. Nanorobots, also called microrobots, are mobile robots that are smaller than one millimeter. These miniature robots can be loaded with medication, then guided inside the patient’s body to the location where the medication is needed and release the medication at the targeted location. In a recent study, a team of US scientists developed nanorobots that are wrapped in soft algae capsules. These tiny soft robots were able to climb a 45-degree slope and “walk” on the surface of brain tissue in a rat without causing damage.7

Although research in nanorobotics is still mainly in the animal testing stage, it is not hard to imagine that one day, these tiny robots will serve as drug-delivering vehicles in our bodies.

Social robots and service robots extend a helping hand

Social robots can interact and communicate with patients as well as carry out certain caring tasks such as lifting. Service robots can handle routine logistic tasks such as disinfecting patient’s rooms, refilling medical supply cabinets, and transporting laundry items.

Social robots and service robots are viewed as part of the solution for healthcare staff shortages, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. One example of social robots is Pepper, a 1.2 meter tall humanoid robot. By analyzing facial expressions and tone of voice, Pepper is able to have “emotional” communications with patients. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the intensive care unit at the Pitié Salpêtrière hospital in Paris used a Pepper robot to help COVID-19 patients keep in touch with their families. Pepper was programmed to stand next to the patient’s bed and use a screen on its chest to facilitate a video call between patients and their families.

robot Pepper healthcare

The robot Pepper was able to reduce the stress levels of both the patients and their families. It also lowered the COVID-19 exposure risk of hospital staff by reducing their physical contact with patients, according to a research analyst.8

It is already technically possible for social robots to sense human emotions through implanted sensors.9 The question is which tasks social robots should be allowed to perform in healthcare, and for which ones only human intervention is acceptable. Going one step further, one might also ask whether it is acceptable to develop companion robots outside the healthcare sector.

The scenario of robots working alongside doctors and nurses in hospitals might become reality sooner than many people expect. Would you be comfortable having your blood sample drawn by a robot? Search “Future of healthcare” on the Supertrends Pro app and tell us your thoughts regarding the following milestones:

[1] Lanfranco AR, Castellanos AE, Desai JP, Meyers WC. Robotic surgery: a current perspective. Ann Surg. 2004;239(1):14-21. doi:10.1097/01.sla.0000103020.19595.7d

[2] Robotics in Healthcare to Improve Patient Outcomes. Intel. Accessed on 13 August 2021.

[3] Siddiqi A, et al. A clinical review of robotic navigation in total knee arthroplasty: historical systems to modern design. EFORT Open Rev. 2021. 6:252-269. DOI: 10.1302/2058-5241.6.200071

[4] Tarantola A, Researchers taught a robot to suture by showing it surgery videos. Engadget. 16 June 2020.

[5] Kinnett-Hopkins D. et al. Users with spinal cord injury experience of robotic Locomotor exoskeletons: a qualitative study of the benefits, limitations, and recommendations. J NeuroEngineering Rehabil. 2020.  17, 124.

[6] Kinnett-Hopkins D. et al. 2020

[7] Mair L.O. et al. Soft Capsule Magnetic Millirobots for Region-Specific Drug Delivery in the Central Nervous System. Front. Robot. AI, 22 July 2021.

[8] Bayern M. How robots are revolutionizing healthcare. ZDNet. 1 July 2020.

[9] Social Robots – a New Perspective in Healthcare. Research Outreach. Accessed 16 Aug 21.

Future of Healthcare, Robotics

Jiqing Hansen

Having worked passionately for 15+ years in Medicine, I felt that I yearned to do something a little bit different, something that satisfies my curiosity and creativity, maybe something that helps to inform me and others what our world will look like in the future. That's when I took on the challenge of being the editor & expert relationship manager at Supertrends. I love the fact that I can still be in touch with my academic background when I am trying to understand and reach out to the experts in the most exciting fields. I also love the diverse and enthusiastic team at Supertrends. The best of all, I get to have a peek into the future, and I am at the position of helping many others to get the opportunity to look into the future.

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