Robots are quickly becoming the next wave of technology advancement, and they are coming to a hospital near you.
In science fiction, robots have been everything from militarized enemies to companions and helpmates. The Star Wars movies have perhaps done the most to show what futuristic robots used for medical purposes might look like.
Yet, people still want the human touch, which is why the integration of medical robots into healthcare may take some time. Ironically, in Star Trek, usually forward-thinking in its embrace of technology, starships have a human (or humanoid) doctor. It was only due to an accident that Star Trek Voyager ended up with its own “robot” doctor in the form of a hologram.
In the real world, we won’t likely see a fully robotic doctor treating patients on its own any time soon. Rather, we will soon see the slow integration of specialty robots and robotic technology into medicine. Some of these innovations are already being implemented, and many may soon end up at the hospital nearest you.
3 Types of Modern Medical Robots
Many robotic technologies are already being incorporated into healthcare settings. While robots currently cannot perform medicine on their own, they are already doing a lot. Here is an overview of some of the types of medical robots you may encounter now or in the near future:
1. Service Robots
We may often imagine the robots of the future as sophisticated talking humanoids, but robots in hospitals will work on many different levels. In Star Wars, small robots often performed menial tasks such as delivering messages or food and cocktails. Some of the most practical medical uses of robots include cleaning and delivering supplies throughout hospitals.
The Xenex Germ-Zapping Robot is a revolutionary machine that is designed to reduce the spread of infectious organisms in hospitals. These “hospital-acquired infections” or HAIs infect 1 in 25 patients in the United States, leading to the deaths of 1 in 9 infected. The robot uses UV light pulses to disinfect rooms and destroy dangerous organisms like MRSA.
2. Robotics in Surgery
Autonomous robots performing surgeries are a far way off. It may be decades before we have a fully humanoid robot executing lightning-fast surgeries without human help. For now, robots are assisting in surgeries, and human surgeons remain in control of these robotic assistants.
For example, the da Vinci Surgical System leverages 3D magnification and small instruments to perform minimally invasive surgery requiring only a few tiny incisions. At Carnegie Mellon University, researchers are developing a miniature robot called HeartLander to offer minimally invasive therapy for the heart. This system is also controlled by a surgeon.
3. Friendly Robot Helpers
Medical robots won’t just help with surgeries or tasks like cleaning. Many medical robots of the future will be designed to help and support patients directly. Some might be hospital greeters, while others will stay with patients at home to monitor their health and provide two-way communication with doctors. Other robots are designed to help lift and move patients, especially bedridden patients who might need to be adjusted so they don’t get bed sores.
Many of these types of helper robots are designed to be approachable and friendly. The Robear, designed in Japan, is designed to move patients and looks like a cute teddy bear.
Potential Downsides of Medical Robots
While many exciting possibilities exist with medical robots, they do have their downsides. It may take some time before the general public is comfortable putting their lives into the hands of machines. Medical robots also may have high maintenance costs – never mind the initial cost of purchase. Additionally, how will the medical robots work in situations where power goes out, such as in a hurricane?
One of the biggest challenges with medical robots may be the potential for hacking. Even back in 2014, this was a concern. The Guardian noted that a security audit found many vulnerabilities in healthcare facilities:
“Critical equipment, such as pumps that distribute antibiotics around the body and defibrillators, were, according to the report, vulnerable to hacking with one of the issues being the poor use of passwords and rare employment of data encryption. It was even possible to change medical records or reboot machines. The firewalls of surgical robots in particular were easy to take down.”
For this reason, cybersecurity is sure to be a major concern for the medical robots of the future.
The Future Is Already Now with Medical Robots
Despite any downsides, medical robots will be increasingly incorporated into modern healthcare. From service robots that help clean hospitals to robotic surgical help, to friendly helper robots, medical robots are the future. Your local hospital may already be using medical robots. What remains to be seen is whether we will soon have holographic doctors helping us as well, just like in Star Trek.