Robots in Healthcare – NOT the Future

Marcuis Galvan

Every week, headlines spark excitement and alarm over a seemingly new advancement in healthcare — robots! But the use of robots in medicine dates back decades. In 1994, the FDA approved Automated Endoscope System for Optimal Position (AESOP) to improve precision in endoscopic surgery. Surgical robots are commonplace today — not replacing human surgeons, but extending their capabilities.

Surgical robots have the advantage of three arms, more flexible “wrists” and the ability to make tinier cuts and place items deep inside the body with more precision. All this happens under the control of a human surgeon working at a console or using voice commands, while watching on an imaging screen in real-time.

Robots in a Range of Roles:
Robots aren’t only improving clinical quality. Increasingly, hospitals use them to reduce cost, operate more efficiently and address the shortage of medical professionals. For example, robots help with mundane tasks around the hospital, like:

• Delivering supplies (TUG Robots from Aethon)
• Disinfecting with ultraviolet light (LightStrike Robots from Xenex)
• Compounding IV drug mixtures for hospital pharmacies (Robotic IV Automation by Arxium — RIVA)

Robots don’t just work out of sight of patients. They are also on the scene when patients are awake and aware. Some examples:

• Giving shots: Veebot Robotic Phlebotomist finds the best vein using infrared light and image analysis, checks with ultrasound for good blood flow and gives an injection faster than a human can.
• Lifting patients: ROBEAR is a powerful robot with a cartoonish bear head that can move patients out of bed and into a wheelchair or turn them over in bed regularly to prevent bed sores.
• Providing emotional support: Shaped like a baby seal, Paro is covered with fake fur and equipped with five sensors. It can tell it if it’s being held or stroked and will move or make sounds in response. Animal therapy without the bother of a live pet!

Robots Are Getting More Like Us:
Humanoid robots in healthcare may seem like a huge leap, but they’re already here. Pepper is being used in Belgian hospitals to greet and accompany visitors to their destinations. The four-foot-tall robot can recognize the human voice in 20 languages and tell whether it is talking to a man, woman or child. Its creator, SoftBank Robotics, calls Pepper an “empathic” robot, able to recognize and respond to human emotions.

Robots have a ways to go, both in looking and acting human. Before you dismiss these advances, however, remember what a bad joke voice recognition software was just a few years ago. Now many of us readily chat with Siri and her siblings.

Also consider that the brains behind Pepper is Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence platform. Watson gained notoriety in 2011 for beating human champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy to win $1 million.

I’ll discuss the power of artificial intelligence in my next blog post . Meanwhile, I invite you to post a comment. Are you making robots part of your healthcare team?

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