Robotics in healthcare: it’s just the beginning

14.11.2019
9 min.
title

Thanks to dystopian books and movies, the world’s robotized future appears both fascinating and terrifying. There can be a fine line between a symbiotic human-robot coexistence and a Matrix-like catastrophe, but many advances in robotics provide hope of thriving alongside robotic companions, caregivers, and guardians.

It’s no surprise that medical software is an area accelerating robotic science implementation, with the global healthcare robotics market predicted to reach a value of $11.4 billion by 2023 according to BIS Research.

In its November 2018 issue, The Lancet Journal reported that only half of all countries had the amount of healthcare workers needed to provide quality care. Therefore, introducing robotics in healthcare with wider applications can compensate for the shortage in the human workforce. If applied efficiently, robotics can improve care delivery without negative side effects to existing workplaces.

Real-world examples of robot-human synergy in healthcare

Currently, robots can support and extend the services health specialists are providing, automating a range of repetitive tasks. Among medical robots used today, there are rehabilitation and therapy support robots, medication dispensing machines, and even devices that can detect falls.

Friendly and helpful machines

Equipped with touch sensors, cameras, microphones, and more, these pals were created to alleviate loneliness, support medication adherence, and ease stress caused by unpleasant experiences.

Buddy

For a health and safety assistant for the whole family, there is Buddy by Blue Frog Robotics. Buddy helps parents educate their kids in a gamified manner—it can tell bedtime stories as well as offer spelling and counting challenges. This feature can be especially useful for children with special learning needs and mental health disorders.

The robot also supports scheduling, planning, and reminding features to help ensure that each family member will get to their appointment on time or will remember significant life events. For older people, Buddy offers medication reminders and fall and unusual inactivity detection. It also provides easy social interaction and continuous connection to their relatives via video calls and photo sharing.

Moreover, the robot can protect the home by sensing smoke, floods, and temperature changes. In case of any unusual situations, it will send alerts to predefined family members and designated contacts.

Buddy

Pria

For those who need to manage multiple medications and dosing times, there is Pria. Made by Black and Decker, Pria is designed primarily to help with dispensing medication. It alerts users when it is time to take their medication and, to assure the right user gets the right medication, uses facial recognition before dispensing into a cup.

The device can notify family members of missed doses and allow caregivers to monitor medication use.

Pria is voice-activated and allows for two-way calling for users to keep in touch with friends and family or their professional care team. Pria can also answer questions that are asked out loud, providing users with helpful information and light conversation, if desired.

Pria

PARO

Pet therapy’s stress-relieving qualities have been recognized by some of the largest health systems, including Mayo Clinic. But not all hospitals or extended care facilities can create a suitable environment for animals to live next to patients. However, PARO is an FDA-approved fluffy interactive robo-seal that allows patients to experience the benefits of pet therapy in clinical settings.

Developed by AIST, PARO is covered with artificial fur and able to differentiate stroking from hitting. The baby seal emotionally reacts to each interaction with a person under treatment, learning the patient’s personality and gradually developing a character that its owner likes. PARO seals can be used for pain distraction, easing stress during a procedure, and reducing the feeling of loneliness, especially in patients with dementia.

Paro

Early steps in robotized diagnostics and treatment

Of course, there are always new advancements being made, and it is no different for robotics in medicine. While most of us think of robots as being pretty large, scientists are working on some designed to fit inside the human body. In the future, these may be able to do what was previously unthinkable and revolutionize how certain conditions are treated.

Nanobots

A new technology called nanobots is being tested on mice and showing promising results. Nanobots are made from a folded sheet of DNA and injected into the patient. They are designed to target a certain area, such as a tumor, and cut off its blood supply. This can shrink the tumor and stop it from spreading. Since they are designed to deliver small doses of drugs with great precision, nanobots might offer a promising future for cancer treatment.

There is still a lot of work to be done before nanobots are used effectively on humans. Getting the tiny robots to the right part of the body and stay there long enough to do their job is among the greatest challenges. Also, finding a way for the body to not expel the nanobot, like most foreign bodies, is something that must be overcome.

Microbots

Similar to nanobots are microbots that are also designed to succeed in precise medication delivery. They are highly flexible, which allows them to flow through different areas of the body, changing shape when needed. Microbots have rare-earth magnets embedded in their valves. This allows researchers to control their movement in the bloodstream, lymphatic system, and eyeball fluid through an external magnetic field.

Microbots can deliver treatment practically anywhere and in a highly-targeted way to streamline the drug’s action and avoid negative effects on other body systems.

Next-gen administration and nursing

Caregiving is full of mundane tasks, such as helping visitors navigate the facility, getting rooms ready for patients, organizing specimen delivery, and many more. The following robots are created to undertake routine activities, relieve nurses and administrative staff from time-consuming tasks and, eventually, trim a few overtime hours.

Pepper

Pepper is a 1.2-meter-tall humanoid robot that recognizes human emotions and voices, adapting its behavior depending on who it talks to. The robot, made by SoftBank Robotics, understands 20 languages and detects whether it communicates with an adult or a child. Primarily designed to be a daily companion for its owner, Pepper is now also useful in hospitals as a receptionist.

The robot greets visitors at the door and helps them to navigate the hospital. Pepper either provides a visitor with directions for getting to their health provider’s office or accompanies them to the correct department so they don’t get lost.

With a 24/7 happy smile and permanently friendly voice, Pepper takes over basic receptionist’s duties and leaves the human staff more time to concentrate on non-trivial tasks.

Pepper

Moxi

Moxi is a hospital robot assistant created by Diligent that helps clinical staff complete non-patient-facing tasks like gathering supplies, removing used items from rooms, and delivering lab samples. Moxi connects to a hospital’s electronic health records system, and nurses can set up rules and tasks for specific changes in a patient’s record. For example, if a patient is discharged, Moxi notes the change on their record and goes to get the room ready for the next patient.

This is an effective way to reduce nurses’ loads because they don’t even have to remember to do a task they were previously required to complete countless times per shift. Additionally, because the robot is pre-programmed, the nurses also don’t have to remember to tell Moxi what to do.

Along with its robotic arm and set of wheels, Moxi features social intelligence, with social awareness and an expressive face. Its friendly nature and ability to learn from humans allow patients to feel comfortable in its presence.

Moxi

TUG

Made by Aethon, TUG is a solution for automating internal logistics, relieving nurses from carrying heavy loads, and saving hospitals major delivery costs. Being an autonomous mobile delivery robot, TUG can transport up to 1,000 pounds of weight. It doesn’t need any additional infrastructure, and by connecting to the hospital’s Wi-Fi, it can open doors, call an elevator, and even ride it.

This robot can be universally applied in hospitals by making on-demand or prescheduled deliveries, which are secured with biometric access and pin-code systems. In particular, TUG can be used to:

  • Deliver medications
  • Transport sterile surgical supplies
  • Remove trash and regulated medical waste
  • Hold linen
  • Deliver food and return dirty trays

Upon completing its task, the robot returns to the charging dock. TUGs can work around the clock, reducing the number of staff on nightshifts and offering more time for health specialists to provide care rather than deliver goods.

TUG

Robots are coming to help us, but it will take some time

Our brains are designed to resist change, so we are sometimes slow to accept it. Robotics in healthcare isn’t just a change—it’s a revolution that will transform care delivery in a way we can’t even imagine now. It will have many proponents, but even more opponents, especially in the beginning. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect fast and widespread adoption of robotics in healthcare.

However, the baby steps that are being taken now are necessary to help ensure that all robotic innovations will be well-intentioned and provide a needed service. Today, we are close to adopting solutions that will remove a lot of routine in nursing, assist with invasive procedures, improve mental health treatment, and automate the delivery of goods.