The era of robotics in healthcare at its dawn

22.02.2018
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 in peace and a Matrix-like catastrophe, but many advances of robotics give humanity hope to thrive alongside robotic companions, caregivers, and guardians.

It’s no surprise that medical software development is one of the areas accelerating robotic science implementation, with IDC’s Worldwide Healthcare IT 2017 Predictions study anticipating 50% increase in the use of robots for delivering medications, food, and supplies by 2019.

In the meantime, the human side of healthcare stagnates. WHO reports that the global shortage of healthcare specialists will make more than 14 million in 2030. Introducing robotics in healthcare with wider applications can compensate the shortage in the human workforce. If applied at major pain points, robotics can improve care delivery without threatening existing workplaces.

Real-world examples of robot-human synergy in healthcare

Currently, robots can support and extend the service health specialists are providing, automating a range of repetitive tasks. Among medical robots used today, there are rehabilitation and therapy support robots, diagnosis-assisting machines and even technical administrative personnel.

Friendship Ex Machina

Being equipped with touch sensors, cameras, and microphones, these pals were created to alleviate loneliness, support medication adherence and ease stress from unpleasant experiences.

Jibo

Jibo is an adorable stationery social robot, sending a few WALL-E vibes with its sense of humor and dance moves. Yes, it broadcasts music and dances to it too, no need for either hands or legs. Jibo is an amazing partner for people who live alone and need more socialization in their lives, especially when feeling depressed.

Jibo uses facial recognition, NLP algorithms, touchscreen, two speakers and an advanced animation system to identify voices, turn to them, greet the owner, simulate body language and build a unique character to match the owner’s personality. Moreover, this robot can take pictures, share interesting facts, cite news, tell the future and even locate monsters nearby, according to its developers.

BUDDY

While Jibo feels more like an entertaining personal companion, BUDDY’s capabilities allow it to become a health and safety assistant for the whole family. 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 mental health disorders.

The robot also supports scheduling, planning and reminding features to ensure that each family member will get to their appointment on time or will remember about significant life events. For older people, BUDDY offers medication reminders, fall detection and unusual inactivity detection, 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, flood, and temperature changes. In case of any unusual situations, it will send alerts to predefined family members and preset contacts.

PARO

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

Covered with artificial fur and being able to differentiate stroking from hitting, the baby seal emotionally reacts to each contact with a person under treatment. It learns the patient’s personality and gradually develops a character that its owner likes. PARO seals can be used for pain distraction, easing stress during a procedure and reduce the feeling of loneliness, especially in patients with dementia.

Early steps in robotized diagnostics and treatment

During the hospital stay, patients need to endure many procedures and undergo a certain treatment plan. Regardless of the chief complaint, giving blood and taking pills are the basic activities for inpatients. But, simple as they are, these procedures bear higher risks of human errors (such as mislabeling and misdosing), which can be reduced with the help of robotics.

Veebot

Veebot is a robotic nurse that automates venipuncture to cut the blood drawing time up to just one minute. Veebot uses infrared light, ultrasound scanning, and image analysis algorithms to recognize vein patterns and evaluate the blood flow. With its unique vein-viewing system, the robot performs with approximately 83 percent accuracy in best vein detection, which is close to an experienced human phlebotomist’s results.

Scallop microbots

Invented by researchers from the Max Planck Institute, the microbots pioneer in precise medication delivery. Shaped like scallops, 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.

Scallop bots can deliver treatment practically anywhere and in a highly-targeted way to streamline the drug action and avoid a negative effect on other body systems.

Ingestible origami robot

Created by the bright minds across MIT, the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the ingestible origami robot can revolutionize gastroenterology by reducing the number of invasive procedures.

The robot is made of dried pig intestine and put into an ice capsule that dissolves in a patient’s stomach. The robot then unfolds to its functional form and, navigated by a technician and external magnetic fields, can move around the stomach to deliver medications, patch up wounds in the stomach lining or even remove foreign bodies, such as swallowed toys or batteries.

Next-gen administration, nursing, and delivery

Caregiving is full of mundane tasks, such as helping visitors navigate the facility, transferring patients across wards, 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 voice, adapting its behavior to a particular person it talks to. The robot understands 20 languages and detects whether it communicates with a woman, man or child. Primarily designed to be a daily companion for its owner, Pepper now also gets adoption 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 the health specialist’s office or accompanies them to the correct department so that they don’t get lost. 

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

ROBEAR

Human care workers lift and carry patients around facilities up to 40 times a day, according to the ROBEAR creators. ROBEAR is an interactive body assistant that looks like a giant cartoon bear and can reduce the need for manual patient carrying.

With the help of a depth-sensing camera to detect people in front of it, it uses sensors and actuators for softer and more precise movement to lift patients in and out of a bed or a wheelchair and assist them to stand up when needed.

We anticipate the increasing popularity of robo-bears and similarly functioning robots for assisted-living facilities and senior housings to ensure proper and timely care for immobile patients. Moreover, such assistants can help transfer patients from ambulance carts to surgical tables and vice versa.

TUG

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 lbs of weight. It doesn’t need any additional infrastructure, connecting to the hospital’s Wi-Fi and thus being able to open doors, call an elevator and 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 or 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.

Robots are coming to take care of our lives, but not too fast

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

However, taking baby steps is fine too. It means that all robotic innovations will be well-aimed and justified. Today, we are close to adopting solutions that will remove a lot of routine in nursing, cut on invasive procedures, improve mental health treatment and automate goods delivery.