What does the future hold for medical robotics?

Jeremy Russell

Business Leader hears from the CEO of surgical robotic experts, OR Productivity – Jeremy Russell – about how medical robotics and AI are making healthcare safer and more efficient.

With gradually-declining running costs and healthcare leaders searching for new means of efficiency, it is inevitable that we will see more and more robotic systems in our hospitals.

With pinpoint precision, remarkable Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced algorithms, the presence of a robot will make operations safer, faster, and more hygienic.

Already, robotics is bringing down the cost of healthcare, eliminating human error, streamlining operating theatres, reducing operating time, and, crucially, freeing-up staff for more pressing matters.

Market projections appear to predict that robotic surgery is winning the economic argument.

The surgical robotics market was evaluated at $3 billion in 2014, and is expected to double to $6 billion by 2020, according to Allied Market Research. And due to a growing demand for minimally invasive procedures, the global market for laparoscopic devices alone is projected to reach $12.3 billion by 2024.

However, the uptake of such technology must be accelerated.

Even if current trends continue, the global needs-based shortage of health-care workers is projected to be more than 14 million in 2030, according to the World Health Organisation.

Thought leaders like Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD, founder of the Medical Futurist website believe that technology will be the key to meeting such challenges. Mesko predicts that methods of automation – such as A.I. robotics and 3D printing – will help to make healthcare sustainable and remarkably efficient in the future.

What does the future hold for the medical industry?

In England alone, recent research showed that NHS hospitals could undertake 17% (280,000) more non-emergency operating procedures every year with better-organised operating theatre schedules – suggesting that operating theatres are significantly underutilised, with each procedure becoming costlier as a result.

So how fast will the medical sector embrace these technologies? And, what might they look like? Mechanical medical assistants, of course, do already exist, and in many different incarnations.

UWE Bristol researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), a collaboration between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol, are creating new robotic tools and devices to be used semi-automatically under the supervision of surgeons during invasive medical procedures.

BRL’s Dr Sanja Dogramadzi, who researches the use of robotic technologies to repair complex joint fractures, believes these tools have the potential to aid orthopaedic, abdominal and cardiovascular surgery.

She said: “By using minimally invasive access to organs and tissues, robotic tools can help to reduce trauma, speed up recovery and minimise costs.”

In her field, small robotic tools can be used to perform closed-joint reduction “with minimal invasion”.

On a larger scale, Google is now working with Johnson and Johnson’s medical device company, Ethicon to develop A.I. surgical robots to assist surgeons during invasive operations. The tech giant, which will provide the software, believes it can use the machine vision and image analysis it has developed for self-driving cars and other ventures.

The partnership will seek to use advanced imaging and sensors to assist surgeons by highlighting blood vessels, nerve cells, tumour margins or other important structures that could be hard to discern in tissue by eye or on a screen, the Guardian reported.

The technology will also incorporate augmented reality to combine the numerous feeds of information currently spread across multiple monitors.

Other existing robotic alternatives such as the Da Vinci Surgical System use a magnified 3D high-definition vision system with tiny flexible instruments far more maneuverable than the human hand.

What role does AI play in the healthcare sector?

This system eases and enhances a surgeon’s ability to operate safely and efficiently, yet has been limited in its use by high running costs.

OR Productivity’s FreeHand system has recently halved in size, making them smaller, more precise and more flexible.

FreeHand holds and manipulates laparoscopes and cameras during keyhole surgical procedures, and provides a rock-steady image.

It also eliminates the need for at least one camera-holding medical assistant, and in-turn brings down the procedural costs.

FreeHand is in talks with partners to combine expertise and build a full low-cost robotic system for laparoscopic surgery – bringing a technological revolution into our hospitals.

This revolution can be brought about by both standalone products, and also by enabling much more expensive products, such as cameras and surgical robotic systems, to deliver their full potential benefits to patients.

Robotic and technological systems will provide safer and faster operations to benefit both patients and surgeons, as well as lower costs for health service providers.

For patients in particular, this will bring a greater peace of mind due to the reduced risk of human error in healthcare, as well as faster recovery times and even smaller surgical scars.

Make no mistake though; we are not yet within the realms of seeing surgeons made redundant by robots. However, rapid advancements in technology repeatedly remind us not to rule-out any possibilities.