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Why Robots in Healthcare Are Just What The Doctor Ordered

Surgery and robots

Photo by: 81st Training Wing Public Affairs

Why Robots in Healthcare Are Just What The Doctor Ordered

Many of us have heard ominous statistics that robots are coming to wipe out our jobs: In fact a report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company finds that by 2030, up to 800 million workers worldwide could find that automation has replaced their jobs.

However, we should consider the benefits that robots offer in many fields, eliminating dangerous or repetitive jobs, such as checking on remote oil fields or making a manufacturing line run more smoothly. And as more tedious, dangerous jobs become more heavily automated, we’ll see a rising need for skilled technicians, engineers, and programmers to support ongoing innovation.

The healthcare industry provides some stellar examples of ways that automation is making the field better for patients and healthcare providers alike. Here are six groundbreaking ways that robots are changing healthcare for the better.     

How Robots can be used as Surgeons

Robots conducting surgery sounds like the plot for a movie, but in reality, robotic arms provide a helpful assist to the surgeon who’s conducting the procedure. Yes, he or she is in the room and controlling the movements in real-time. "The robot provides excellent visualization, greater degrees of freedom and very precise movements," explains Dr. Michele Loor, who performs surgery at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and uses robotic procedures to perform hernia repairs. Robots can also be useful in procedures such as bladder or colon surgery and prostate, gynecologic and cardiothoracic cases.

Benefits: Shorter hospital stays and a quicker recovery, as well as less pain because the incision is typically smaller.

How Robots act as Physical Therapists

When used in rehabilitation, robots provide important feedback to therapists. They use sensors to monitor movements and positioning, which can help determine how a patient is progressing. Robotic assists can help make real-time corrections in areas such as gait trainers. When working with patients who are re-learning to walk, it can evaluate a patient’s range of motion and muscular activation, and help patients practice repetitive movements, such as those associated with shoulder rehab.

Benefits: Ability to receive improved patient diagnostics while preventing physical strain on therapists.

Use of Robots as Pharmacists

You rely on your neighborhood pharmacist as you leave the hospital to give you advice about how to get the most from your prescription and watch for potential drug interactions. But a new breed of pharma robots are improving service by helping with the more mundane tasks of a pharmacy, such as counting and bottling pills—with human pharmacists there to double-check the packaged and barcoded medicine. “Now our pharmacists are an integral part of the medical team, going on rounds with physicians and nurses,” said Rita Jew, director of the University of California San Francisco pharmacy at Mission Bay.

Benefits: Fewer errors and more time for pharmacists to counsel patients

Why Robots as Caregivers

While the idea hasn’t caught on yet in the west, the Japanese are embracing the concept of robots to help with elder care. So far they are being used primarily for monitoring and certain mobility tasks, as well as companionship. “More people live alone these days, and a robot can be a conversation partner for them. It will make life more fun,” said 84-year-old Kazuko Yamada after a session with a robot pet.

Benefits: Automating certain functions allows the depleted ranks of caregivers to do more.

How Robots act as Teledocs

Patients in remote areas often must be transferred to distant hospitals for a more accurate diagnosis, leading to a dangerous delay in treatment. One study found that robotic telemedicine can be used to complete an assessment of someone in a comatose state as well as if the doctor were in the same room. The study holds promise for stroke patients as well. Using telemedicine, the Mayo Clinic Hospital system achieved a 68 percent reduction in unnecessary transfers in patients with neurological emergencies.

Benefits: Faster treatment and less stress associated with transferring patients.

How to make Robots as Germ-Killers

Ironically, hospitals rank as some of the germiest places around, with pathogens such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococci) lurking on surfaces from telephones to cabinet knobs. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection finds that about one in 31 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection on any given day. Enter cleaning robots, which flood the room with ultraviolet radiation that kills even the tiniest germs.

Benefits: A healthier hospital room.