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Robotics in Medicine: The Future is Now!

This is the fourth in a series of blogs that celebrate a decade in technology innovation in recognition of National HIT Week.

When most of us think of robots, we probably conjure up images from characters in Woody Allen’s classic, “Sleeper,” C-3PO from “Star Wars” or the human-like robot in “Bicentennial Man”. The fact is though, robotics is a reality now!

Robots_in_Medicine_1008.jpgTake for example, the daVinci surgical robotic system that has already performed more than two million operations worldwide since 2000; or the CorPath Vascular Robotics System that performs coronary angioplasties with exacting precision while also protecting physicians from harmful health effects linked to long-term radiation exposure.

The daVinci and CorPath Systems are just two of the potentially hundreds of uses for robotics in medicine today – and in the near future as well. Here are some of the more interesting applications for robotics in modern medicine worth noting:

  • An exoskeleton designed to help those that are paralyzed walk, by using a pair of robotic legs.
  • The ability to perform minimally invasive procedures guided by real-time scans from a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine. Included in the MRI is a patient and a robot made from plastic parts and ceramic piezoelectric motors* that allow it to work safely in a MRI.
  • Robots that help coach children undergoing simple medical procedures that are likely to cause pain and anxiety (such as vaccinations and other procedures involving needles.)
  • A “therapy” robot designed for use with dementia patients. The concept behind it is based on studies that show animals can have a significant, positive impact on people with this condition. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to reduce stress and agitation, minimize feelings of isolation characteristic of this disease, and give people something they can touch and be touched by.

 

Another significant robotic application is linked to the Ebola outbreak that took place in Africa and impacted other parts of the world this past year. Currently, discussions are underway to repurpose existing robots that would assist in areas where an Ebola outbreak exists (although this concept could have applications for epidemics in other areas of the world as well). These robots could be used to perform various tasks currently performed by healthcare workers. All have a high degree of risk to human health – particular where Ebola is concerned. Among them:

  • Mortuary robots used to respectfully transport deceased patients. The idea behind this is that Ebola is the most virulent at the time of death and immediately following
  • Handling materials associated with providing care to Ebola-stricken patients, as well as patient care itself
  • Detecting contamination
  • Disinfecting
  • “Telepresence” robots to enable medical experts to consult and advise on medical issues; train and supervise worker decontamination or detect accidental self-contamination
  • Serve as rolling interpreters for different languages and dialects.

 

According to Wired magazine, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likely be replaced by automation, healthcare among them. This upheaval is being driven by “a new wave of automation focused on artificial cognition, cheap sensors, machine learning and distributed smarts.”

So, be ready. The person who replaces you at work may end up being a robot!

*A type of electric motor based upon the change in shape of a piezo electric material when an electric field is applied.