Could a robot replace your doctor in the near future?

Could a robot replace your doctor in the near future?

By Navneeta Kaul

The contribution of modern robotics in healthcare is undisputed. Over the past decade, robots have made remarkable progress in changing the healthcare system all over the world. Robots are assisting healthcare professionals in a variety of tasks, ranging from performing surgical procedures to delivering drugs, and even facilitating their interaction with patients. With the advent of next-generation medical robots, both patients and healthcare professionals will reap tremendous benefits.

Surgical robots: A boon to surgeons

Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci system allows a surgeon to bend and rotate tissues with far better flexibility compared to surgical instruments. The da Vinci Surgical Robot system is equipped with a 3D magnification vision system and tiny instruments that translate the hand movements of the surgeon into very precise movements inside a patient. All of this means that surgeons can perform surgery with minimal incisions.

The da Vinci system was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 2000. Largely due to its success, surgical robots are witnessing an upsurge of financial investments, and the market is expected to grow to $20 billion by 2024. Established companies and startups are launching new-generation robot systems that are more versatile, affordable and portable than the da Vinci System.

Cambridge Medical Robotics (CMR) has developed the world’s smallest surgical robot, called Versius. Similar in size to a human arm, this system enables surgeons to perform surgeries with greater flexibility.  

Johnson & Johnson and Google’s life sciences subsidiary Verily Life Sciences have also partnered to work on creating a next-generation robot system.  To assist orthopedic surgeons in performing knee and hip replacement surgeries, Stryker has launched Mako Surgical Robot systems. Recently, the FDA cleared Auris Health’s Monarch Robotic system to diagnose and treat lung and cancer tumors. TransEnterix has launched Senhance Surgical Robot System to perform colorectal and gynecological surgeries. Companies like Medtronic, Titan Medical, and Mazor Robotics are also launching surgical robots in emerging markets. New entrants in the field of medical robotics are challenging traditional companies by providing better technology at affordable prices, helping healthcare systems.

Robots: A welcome addition to the regular medical staff

In addition to assisting surgeons, robots can also help reduce the workload for regular medical staff. Robots already help nurses with simple repetitive and time-consuming tasks in hospitals. The TUG robot is programmed to carry multiple racks of medicines, lab specimens, or other sensitive materials to any location in the hospital. A startup company, Diligent Robotics, is testing a mobile robot called Poli in many hospitals in Austin, Texas, and is helping nurses spend more time with patients.

Aside from cutting the workload for nurses, robots can also assist in performing other duties for patient care. Veebot Robots can select the precise sites for drawing blood quickly. RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) has strong human-like arms and sensors that can lift patients out of bed, carry them, or even turn them in bed to prevent bed sores.

Xenex Robots use UV light to disinfect rooms in the hospital and thus reduce the risk of infections. The video below shows how it works.


Say goodbye to loneliness with the companion robot:

Improving a patient’s condition while undergoing treatment requires both medical and personal attention. Jibo, Pepper (seen in video below), Paro and Buddy Robots are friendly robots that can socialize with kids, as well as patients with dementia or trauma. Anybots Inc robots personally interact with patients and can even book future appointments.

Robots will restore vision, movement, and even cut surgeries:

With modern robotics, the possibilities in improving healthcare are unlimited. SuitX has launched a mere 27-pound exoskeleton, Phoenix, for paraplegic patients. A retinal prosthesis system, Argus II from Second Sight Company, has been recently approved by the FDA and will help patients with blindness to perceive the outline of figures and shadows.

Intense ongoing research in this area will further improve the technology. In near future, medical robots with integrated AI technology will help doctors to process information from patients quickly, accurately and intelligently. AI tools have already demonstrated an extraordinary ability to recommend better treatment options to patients. In the coming decades, IBM Watson, Google’s Deep Variant tools will help surgeons and doctors predict and solve complex surgical medical problems and save paperwork.

Soon, robotic pills will usher in a new era in healthcare technology by reducing the number of surgeries altogether. Researchers are working on easy-to-swallow remote-controlled robotic pills. These pills will be able to move inside a patient’s bodily fluids and deliver drugs to the desired area, conduct biopsies, film the area, and even clear clogged arteries.  Exciting new robots such as nanobots can travel in the bloodstream with the help of light and remove tumors from the body.

Challenges and future prospects:

Overall, besides easing the burden for medical staff and improving productivity, medical robots will also help surgeons to perform non-invasive surgeries. However, medical robots are very expensive in their current form. Training personnel to work with robots is not an easy task. Robots still take time to respond to a clinician’s instructions. However, strong research in various academic institutions and startups are expected to provide innovative solutions to these challenges.

A major collaboration between industry, health systems, payers and regulators was recently announced to promote the use of AI and automation in healthcare. The Partnership for Artificial Intelligence and Automation in Healthcare (PATH) will explore “how technology can improve the delivery of medicine, reduce costs and expand access to healthcare services to millions of people across the globe.”

In next 25 years, medical robots are expected to be cost-effective, smaller, smarter and safer. Medical robots will play a significant role in making better healthcare a reality in the near future.

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