Robotics and healthcare: what does the future hold?

Robots have been a part of human history (and our collective imagination) since Ancient Greece. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Hephaestus the god of all mechanical arts was assisted by two moving female statues made from gold.

Robots also occupy a prominent place in a utopian vision of how society can be bettered through the use of more efficient mechanical versions of ourselves. As technology has advanced, the prospect that robots could carry out tasks traditionally done by humans became less of fantasy and more of reality. In healthcare, the use of robots has shown to be a promising area that could act as a driver to increase our capacity to prevent, diagnose and treat disease.

In healthcare, like most other fields, the industry has adopted an increasing number of robotic systems that occupy a variety of functions. Robots are currently engaged in such tasks as patient monitoring and evaluation, medical supplies delivery, prescription fulfillment, and in the capacity of performing diagnostics and surgery. The scope of robotics in healthcare will take on a more practical role in the broad mission of providing care, particularly where service delivery gaps are present.

The demand for robotics in the healthcare industry

The future of robotics in healthcare will be driven by two factors: advances in artificial intelligence technology and demand in the healthcare industry.

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In this capacity, robots have the potential to fulfill a significant role in healthcare by filling gaps that are widening with an ageing and largely chronically ill population.

Healthcare robots can support caregivers and aid healthcare workers in tasks which they struggle to find time to do. As such, the scope and and function of healthcare robotics will be defined by demands arising in care delivery and made more significant with further developments in AI technology.

Telepresence robots as a solution to the global health worker shortage

Examples of healthcare robots filling a gap involve the use of telepresence robots. Telepresence robots are a video conferencing screen mounted on a moving base robotic based can offer telehealth services in remote areas in which healthcare providers are not available. A remote user can log into the robot and control its movement while projecting their own face on the screen. The robot can move around and interact with people as a human clinician would.

Although currently being used in a limited fashion as an extension of a remote user, the telepresence robots of the future could model intelligent behavior with less human intervention than currently. Armed with sophisticated AI capacity, these could complete diagnostic and evaluative tasks while engaging with a patient, providing valuable information regarding their health status and offering a recommendation based on a combination of machine learning and AI. In other applications, a human-sized, friendly looking telepresence robot can conduct check-ins and non-medical care for patients.

Telepresence robots should not be viewed as a luxury to eliminate the monotony of patient intake and examination; rather they are a necessity to fill a vital shortage. According to the World Health Organization, the world will be short of 12.9 million healthcare workers by 2035; today, the is a shortage of 7.2 million physicians, nurses, and allied health workers worldwide.

In this context, telepresence robots can expand the reach of the healthcare workforce in high demand areas; but also provide a way to enhance the diagnostics and evaluative capacities of healthcare workers as well.

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Jeff Green

About the author…

Jeff Green, MPH, JD works as a freelance writer and consultant in the Healthcare information Technology Space.

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Jeff Green