Robots for Humanity

Are robots the future of healthcare?

From microbots that scrape plaque from arteries to personal assistant robots that help care for patients, medical robots are transforming the face of healthcare.

A range of innovations, from new software to new devices, will transform the way all of us interact with the health-care system—making it easier for us to stay healthy and, when we do get sick, making it easier for medical professionals to treat us. Changing not just how medicine is practiced but who is practicing it. healthrobots copy 2

IBM's Watson—the same machine that beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy—is now churning through case histories at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, learning to make diagnoses and treatment recommendations. This is one in a series of developments suggesting that technology may be about to disrupt health care in the same way it has disrupted so many other industries. Are doctors necessary? Just how far might the automation of medicine go? 

In the next few years, thousands of 'service robots' are expected to enter the healthcare sector. And that's no surprise considering the mounting financial difficulties the industry faces. Robots like the Aethon TUG can complete the work of three full-time employees, yet it "costs less than one full-time employee.

This new robotic breed is boasting features increasingly found in smartphones, gaming consoles and other consumer electronics, from advanced sensors and motion detectors to powerful microprocessors and voice activation. The service robots are self-aware, intelligent and able to navigate changing environments such as the chaotic hospital settings.

In Brazil and India, machines are already starting to do primary care, because there’s no labor to do it. They may be better than doctors. Mathematically, they will follow evidence—and they’re much more likely to be right. 

Earlier in 2012, robotics firm iRobot built an emerging technologies group in partnership with InTouch Health to put its AVA telepresence technology to better use. As a result, the two companies developed the Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant, or RP-VITA, which combines iRobot's AVA telepresence units with InTouch health's distance education tools, creating a system that allows physicians to care for patients remotely.

In the future as the innovators imagine it—“Health 2.0,” as some people have started calling it—you would be in constant contact with the health-care system, although you’d hardly be aware of it. The goal would be to keep you healthy—and any time you were in danger of becoming unhealthy, to ensure you received attention right away. You might wear a bracelet that monitors your blood pressure, or a pedometer that logs movement and exercise. You could opt for a monitoring system that makes sure you take your prescribed medication, at the prescribed intervals. All of these devices would transmit information back to your provider of basic medical care, dumping data directly into an electronic medical record.

Some healthcare problems facing humans can be solved today by machines that function like humans.ibot

Medical Devices Changing Patient/Doctor Communication

When we think of breakthroughs in medicine, we conjure up images of new drugs or new surgeries. When we think of changes to the health-care system, byzantine legislation comes to mind. But according to a growing number of observers, the next big thing to hit medical care will be new ways of accumulating, processing, and applying data—revolutionizing medical care. 

At the recent FutureMed, (an annual conference on medical innovation that brings together financiers, physicians, and engineers from around the world) offer a future in which it is possible to deliver highly personalized care without necessarily having to do it in person, or even with a doctor.

Some examples:traigebot


Computer engineers at Vanderbilt University have teamed up with emergency medicine specialists at the school’s medical center to explore how robots could improve the chaotic process of prioritizing incoming ER patients. They envision robots, dubbed TriageBots, which would check patients in, gather their medical records, administer diagnostic tests and work with doctors to provide preliminary diagnoses and allocate medical attention according to need.

While people wait in the emergency room, they would sit in special "smart" chairs stocked with interactive diagnostic equipment that could relay more comprehensive data to medical personnel. Based on the level of urgency, the triage bots could either immediately notify medical staff or give the patient an estimated wait time. Mobile robots would circulate around the waiting room to check on the status of patients awaiting care and reallocate priorities if necessary.

It looks like Vecna Robotics’ battlefield soldier robot Bear will have some competition thanks to a U.S. robotics start-up developing similar robots. Formed by MIT alumni sometime around 2007, Hstar Technologies is partnering with a number of tech companies and medical institutions, including the Harvard Medical School and Veterans Hospital. Among their first products to enter the market will be the RehaBot, which exercises the upper and lower limbs of patients severely impaired by musculoskeletal and traumatic brain injuries.nurse

Hstar Technologies plans to market a military version of the robot called cRoNA (with the “c” likely standing for casualty).  It will be used to extract wounded soldiers from the battlefield, putting it in direct competition with Bear.  However, Bear’s lead of several years (and its more powerful strength) will give it an edge if they’re comparable in price.  The ability to move casualties without putting other soldiers in the line of fire has obvious benefits, but there’s yet another possible use for the robot.soldier

Another major project in the works is RoNA (Robotic Nursing Assistant), which can lift and move patients in excess of 136 kg (300 lbs).  As already pointed out by Japanese researchers working on a similar nursing assistant called RIBA, nurses risk serious injury when lifting patients.  According to Hstar Technologies, nurses sustain more injuries than any other U.S. profession and most occur when moving patients.