October 02, 2021

Medical Robots and Robotics In Modern Medicine

As the world gets more mechanized, even the medical world is not spared. Welcome to the world of medical robots. A medical robot is a robot used in the field of medicine. A good example is the surgical robot found in most telemanipulators which use the surgeon's actions on one side to control the "effector" on the other side. Sometimes, the surgeon is in another city.

Synonyms: robotic device, experimental robot, physical robot, biological robot, health robot, medical device, therapeutic tool, robotic surgery.

Medical robotics is a relatively new field. Robots can be used in medical facilities to perform mundane tasks like delivering patient specimens and records to various areas of the hospital. They can also be highly specialized and assist in diagnosing and treating patients. However, a key driver for the growth of the global medical robotics market is demand for using robots in minimally invasive surgeries, especially for neurologic, orthopaedic, and laparoscopic procedures.

History of robotics in medicine

During the last three decades, medical robots have been increasingly used to perform a growing number of health tasks. As such, they show a promising future potential for use in a wide range of health issues.

Robots was first experimented with in medicine during the 1980s, in the field of urology. Robotic arms were developed and used to resection the prostate. Robotics was used only in a limited capacity at that time, as its imaging capability as regards the prostate was of poor quality. Also during the 1980s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-Ames Research Center, began to explore the use of robotics for telemedicine.

As advances were made, NASA realized the potential application of telemedicine to battlefields, and devoted large amounts of funding to its development.

From 1989 through 2003, several physicians and scientists developed medical robots to help with many types of surgeries, and the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) began to approve their use. Advances in robotics are continually being made, as more and more products and techniques are becoming available.

Types of medical robots

While there is still much work to be done in this newly developing field, using robots can enhance medical treatment in terms of both the quality and accessibility of care. Robots help reduce human error and bring highly specialized information to remote areas without requiring physicians to travel.

A laparoscopic robotic surgery machine.
A laparoscopic robotic surgery machine controlled by a surgeon from a console. Image: Nimur via Wikimedia Commons
In general, medical robots can be categorized into three main classes: (1) medical devices including surgery robotic devices, diagnosis and drug delivery devices, (2) assistive robotics including wearable robots and rehabilitation devices, and (3) robots mimicking the human body including prostheses, artificial organs, and body-part simulators.

Features of medical robots

Compared to manual machines in healthcare, medical robotic systems offer a wide range of advantages. They are flexible and can be programmed to perform a number of tasks. They are more versatile and cost effective. Further, they can eliminate human fatigue as well as improve the precision and capabilities of physicians.

In order to design medical robots, a fundamental knowledge of biological systems is needed because these machines should be more accurate than other robotic systems and should contain sensing systems that provide them with safety features.

Although medical robotics offer many advantages, it is recognized by many authors that the acceptance of robots in healthcare has been slowed by safety concerns. To be accepted and widely deployed, medical robots have to provide real advantages, including reduction of access trauma, faster recovery, scar limitation, cost reduction, eases of use, human-machine communication capabilities, and so on.

Practical uses of medical robots

Below are six top uses for robots in the field of medicine today.

1). Telepresence: Physicians use robots to help them examine and treat patients in rural or remote locations, giving them a “telepresence” in the room. Thus, specialists can be on call, via the robot, to answer questions and guide therapy from remote locations. The key features of these robotic devices include navigation capability within the ER, and sophisticated cameras for the physical examination.

2). Surgical Assistants: These remote-controlled robots assist surgeons with performing operations, typically minimally invasive procedures. The ability to manipulate a highly sophisticated robotic arm by operating controls, seated at a workstation out of the operating room, is the hallmark of surgical robots. Additional applications for these surgical-assistant robots are continually being developed, as more advanced 3DHD technology gives surgeons the spatial references needed for highly complex surgery, including more enhanced natural stereo visualization, combined with augmented reality.

3). Rehabilitation Robots: These play a crucial role in the recovery of people with disabilities, including improved mobility, strength, coordination, and quality of life. These robots can be programmed to adapt to the condition of each patient as they recover from strokes, traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries, or neurobehavioral or neuromuscular diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Virtual reality integrated with rehabilitation robots can also improve balance, walking, and other motor functions.

4). Medical Transportation Robots: Supplies, medications, and meals can be delivered to patients and staff by these robots, thereby optimizing communication between doctors, hospital staff members, and patients. Most of these machines have highly dedicated capabilities for self-navigation throughout the facility. There is, however, a need for highly advanced and cost-effective indoor navigation systems based on sensor fusion location technology in order to make the navigational capabilities of transportation robots more robust.

5}. Sanitation and Disinfection Robots: With the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria and outbreaks of deadly infections like Ebola, more healthcare facilities are using robots to clean and disinfect surfaces. The primary methods used for hospital disinfection are UV light and hydrogen peroxide vapors. These robots can disinfect a room of any bacteria and viruses within minutes.

6). Robotic Prescription Dispensing Systems: The biggest advantages of robots are speed and accuracy, two features that are very important to pharmacies. Automated dispensing systems have advanced to the point where robots can now handle powder, liquids, and highly viscous materials, with much higher speed and accuracy than before.

Future models and other considerations

Advanced robots continue to be designed for an ever-expanding range of applications in the healthcare space. Exciting discoveries are being made with nanoparticles and nanomaterials. For example, nanoparticles can traverse the “blood-brain barrier.” In the future, nanodevices can be loaded with “treatment payloads” of medicine that can be injected into the body and automatically guided to the precise target sites within the body. Soon, ingestible, broadband-enabled digital tools will be available that use wireless technology to help monitor internal reactions to medications.

Existing technologies are being combined in new ways to streamline the efficiency of healthcare operations, while at the same time, emerging robotic technologies are being harnessed to enable intriguing breakthroughs in medical care.

Along with improved patient care, the other aim of medical robotics mainstream is to cut down on medical costs. However, this is not always the case. Some robotic systems cost millions to purchase and thousands per year or more to maintain. Thus, hospitals must evaluate the cost of the machine vs. the cost of traditional care. If robots cut down on trauma and healing time, that is money saved in terms of the number of days the patient stays in the hospital.

Finally, extensive training time may be required for physicians and hospital workers to learn to program and operate the machines.
Article written 31 March 2011; rewritten 2 October 2021.

1). Olfa Boubaker; Chapter 7 - Medical robotics. Control Theory in Biomedical Engineering. Academic Press, 2020, Pages 153-204, ISBN 9780128213506, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-821350-6.00007-X.
2). Mark Crawford. Top 6 Robotic Applications in Medicine. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
3). Johnston John. The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI. The MIT Press, 2008.
4). Serenko, Alexander (2010). The development of an AI journal ranking based on the revealed preference approach. Journal of Informetrics 4(4): 447-459.

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