A da Vinci Surgical System at Addenbrooke's Treatment Centre during the 2015 Cambridge Science Festival. Photo by Cmglee and licensed under CreativeCommons 3.0.
Would you trust your life to a robotic surgeon? How about your mental health? While some may be uncomfortable with the idea of a robot performing their surgery or comforting them in times of stress, it is becoming increasingly commonplace in the world of healthcare, where interest in (and funding for) medical robots within the field of biomedical engineering is rising.
There are good reasons for engineers to develop medical robots for use in healthcare. Unlike human beings, robots are tireless, and their "hands" never shake. They can perform precise movements even beyond the human range of motion and be present with patients for as long as necessary. Plus, they can automate lower-level or repetitive tasks and leave the high-level work to humans.
Here are five recently developed robots currently being implemented in hospitals and treatment centers to improve quality of care and patient outcomes.
1. The da Vinci® Surgical Robot
It is unthinkable, but true: More than 250,000 people die in the U.S. each year from medical errors, some of which are likely preventable.1 While this is a broad category encompassing a range of different problems, it's certainly true that the more control surgeons have in their operations, the better. The da Vinci Surgical System, a multi-armed wonderbot, is being used to reduce surgical errors and make surgery less invasive for thousands of patients.
The da Vinci Surgical System gives surgeons more precise control for a range of procedures. Using magnified 3D high-definition vision and controls that strap to a surgeon's wrists and hands, the da Vinci System makes tiny, exact incisions that human hands might not otherwise be able to make. This offers enhanced control to surgeons and, since the surgery is less invasive than traditional surgery, a faster healing time for patients.2
2. The Xenex Germ-Zapping Robot
Along with minimizing medical and surgical errors, hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) are another widespread problem in healthcare that could be improved with robots. The CDC reported that there were 722,000 HAIs in U.S. acute care hospitals in 2011.3 HAIs often occur because hospitals can't always clean rooms with 100 percent sterility between patients, whether due to time constraints or the simple invisibility of germs. Whatever the reason, patients who are already immunocompromised are more susceptible to bacterial infection.
To combat this elemental problem, the Xenex, an automated and portable robot, is used to disinfect entire hospital rooms in minutes using pulsed, full-spectrum UV rays that kill a range of infectious bacteria. It's designed to reduce HAIs such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) by killing the microorganisms that cause them, which can be particularly resistant to treatment. Plus, the robot is kind of cute—it looks like an R2-D2 designed to save lives.
3. The PARO Therapeutic Robot
Unlike the first two robots, this one is not designed to save lives per se, but to improve quality of life during recovery from surgery or treatment for depression or other mental illness. The PARO Therapeutic Robot is an interactive device that looks like a baby harbor seal and is designed to provide the benefits of animal therapy without relying on live animals. Animal therapy is a common tool for easing patient stress, but there are not always trained animals available to satisfy current need. Friendly, animal-like PARO fits the bill.
PARO is used extensively with elderly patients with dementia, and has been proven to reduce stress and provide comfort to anxious patients.4 The fuzzy PARO can respond to its name, enjoys being stroked, and, over time, develops a customized, pleasing personality tailored by its memory of previous interactions. PARO also naps, blinks, wiggles its flippers and makes funny little noises, especially for its owner. Bonus: it charges by "sucking" on a charger shaped like a pacifier.
4. The CyberKnife
The Cyberknife is a robotic surgery system that delivers radiation therapy to tumors with sub-millimeter precision.5 Invented in the 1990s, the CyberKnife system is now being used to treat cancer at hospitals and treatment centers all over the U.S. Not a knife per se, the system is a radiation source mounted on a robot, which allows for a targeted beam of radiotherapy that maneuvers and adapts quickly. It can deliver radiation to a tumor (malignant or benign), repositioning itself at many minutely different angles to target the tumor from all sides without having to reposition the patient.
The CyberKnife has allowed for treatment of tumors in areas of the body that were once surgically complex to operate on, including the prostate, head, neck and liver. This "surgery" is actually non-invasive and minimizes the exposure of healthy organs and tissues to radiation. What's more, the CyberKnife has been shown to be remarkably effective in the long term for prostate cancer, although long-term control of other cancers have not been studied.6
5. The TUG
You may never think about it, but transporting supplies, meals and other materials around the hospital is a drag on efficiency. One estimate shows that a typical 200-bed hospital moves meals, linens, lab samples, waste and other items the equivalent of 53 miles per day.7 Enter TUG, an autonomous mobile robot developed by Aethon Inc. to ferry supplies to where they are needed, freeing employees from heavy physical loads and allowing them to focus on patient care.
When the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay opened in 2015, it rolled out 25 TUG robots to improve their transportation operations.8 They are programmed with the hospital's floor plan and are also equipped with a variety of sensors to ensure they don't run into anything on their way to the lab. They also kindly ask people to stand aside as they move into congested hallways.
A whole world of innovation is possible as robots become more sophisticated and responsive and make greater inroads into medical treatment. HAIs, medical errors, cancer and mental illness have long been viewed as intractable problems in healthcare, but biomedical engineering is helping to find new ways forward.
Technology for patient care is only one piece of the puzzle. Hear more about how one professor at Case Western Reserve is developing new ways to communicate with the human nervous system.
1 Retrieved on September 28, 2017, from npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/05/03/476636183/death-certificates-undercount-toll-of-medical-errors
2 Retrieved on September 28, 2017, from davincisurgery.com/
3 Retrieved on September 28, 2017 from cdc.gov/hai/surveillance/
4 Retrieved on September 28, 2017, from parorobots.com/
5 Retrieved on October 4, 2017, from cyberknife.com/technology/precision
6 Retrieved on October 4, 2017, from markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/10-year-Data-Shows-CyberKnife-System-Provides-Excellent-Long-term-Control-of-Low-Risk-Prostate-Cancer-1002567582
7 Retrieved on October 4, 2017, from aethon.com/tug/tughealthcare/
8 Retrieved on October 4, 2017, from cnet.com/news/robots-give-a-helping-hand-in-san-franciscos-newest-hospital/