The Future of Healthcare: Robots, Drones, Automation

October 21, 2015

11:00 am

Healthcare is a field that is always at the edge of technology, where there is a push to make strides to help better diagnosis and patient care. There are small changes where new technologies can be adapted relatively cheaply and easily, and larger advances that can take a couple of years to find a foothold in the marketplace.

When you think of technology and healthcare, you might think about your general doctor picking up more efficient and hygienic thermometers over the years. From oral thermometers to ear thermometers to the forehead wand, hygiene and ease of use has always been the new factor for each of these tools.

But that isn’t a large-scale change. But one like it is coming.

Since the mid-1980s, robots have been steadily incorporated into surgeries to help add precision, comfort, and alleviate pressure off the surgeon. The first surgery-robot assisted in needle placement for a brain biopsy, and later models, like the da Vinci, aid in micro surgery by giving the surgeon 3D vision, extremely dexterous and agile instruments, and sanitary conditions that would be a lot more difficult to replicate with a hands-on approach.

Later models will surely be able to incorporate more of the surgeon’s abilities in a way that reduces the footprint of a surgery. With smaller incisions, patients heal faster. This means less rehabilitation and quicker recovery. Such advances can lead to surgeries that are shorter, easier, and with less chance of complication.

Other robots can aid by providing additional data or information to the surgeon that they would otherwise not have continuous access to. The neuroArm allows a surgeon to perform biopsies and operations on patient’s brains while processing MRI scans of the patient to help orient and guide the surgeon through the operation.

Moving away from high-precision surgery to more menial tasks, how else can robots assist in the care of patients?

In a hospital in San Francisco, the administration has begun to roll out Tug medical automatons to provide patients with food, medical supplies, and trash service. The machines can detect the area around them using sensors, read the layout of the hospital through the Wi-Fi, and call and use elevators to move between floors. After they are set up and given directions, they perform their tasks while patiently waiting or moving around obstacles that get in their path while not having to worry about taking breaks or sleeping.

Food delivery alone is a tedious process for a large hospital. By automating the process, the staff free up their time to work with patients that require more assistance while not having to worry if they’ve slipped behind schedule for delivering meals, laundry, or medicine.

Other robots, such as the ROEBEAR, are built to help patients in and out of their beds. This keeps patients from feeling trapped if they cannot get immediate assistance and helps prevent injury to nurses and other caregivers. These robots can be implemented in hospitals and homes, depending on the need of the patient.

3D printing technologies are in their infancy, especially for healthcare based research. While relatively easy to print plastic or CNC mill ceramic to create crowns for teeth, the ability to print replacement parts like ears and other appendages could be enormous for the quality of life for patients.

3D printed joints and bones, along with splints and made-to-fit replacements are already created with polymers and other materials for patients. The future holds the ability to make tailor-made-to-fit organs or skin-grafts made from a patient’s stem cells to create perfect transplants that don’t require waiting lists or donors.

That is a ways off, but with recent advances such as discovering a method for crafting vasculature onto printed organs; it doesn’t have to be science fiction for much longer.

How can robotics and machines help assist in less physical realms of healthcare?

Diagnostics is a complex science. With tens of thousands of different symptoms tied to thousands of diseases and different diagnoses, it can be difficult for even a team of doctors to keep it all together. Biases from their chosen specialties can cloud even the best methodologies and cause small errors or mistakes in diagnosing a patient. IBM hopes to help with that.

IBM’s Watson computer, named after IBM’s first CEO, Thomas Watson, is a diagnostic AI machine built to understand the natural language that is presented in raw data without relying on a pre-organized database to pull information. This is extremely helpful for keeping track of all the different symptoms and potential causes and diseases for any given patient. It can pull information from context and learning algorithms to make connections that would otherwise take years to discover.

Watson helps researchers concoct new drugs that take interactions and side effects into account. Additionally, if used on an individual basis, more perfect regimes can be implemented for treating patients that can maximize the amount of care while minimizing the amount of unwanted side effects, and ultimately shortening the treatment length. This personalized level of healthcare can help make sure treatment plans are specifically tailored to meet the needs of the patient, since everyone is just slightly different.

All these technologies are either in the very near future or not very far off. Extrapolating farther out is more difficult and foggy. What’s next? In addition to determining dosage regimes, future computers could probably accurately track the cells that are causing illness and eradication them with perfect doses of antibiotics, antivirals, or modified viruses to correct aberrations in cancer cells.

The idea of automated machines delivering food, drugs and laundry to patients was pretty far fetched a decade ago. With advancements in sensor technology, cheaper parts, and machine learning, the new limitations are only held back by imagination. Working with the inherent limits of a computer and matching its strengths can play a large role in the future development of healthcare.

Image credit: Robotic CyberKnife at St. Marys Of Michigan” autorstwa Communications Manager – Robotic CyberKnife at St. Mary's Of MichiganPhoto provided by Saginaw Future.. Licencja CC BY 2.0 na podstawie Wikimedia Commons/

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Writer in Southwest Idaho. (Finally) finishing up Creative Writing undergrad work. Environmental Editor at Bizarre Culture Mag