Robots are everywhere from science fiction to your local hospital, where they are changing healthcare. For the most part, these robots resemble R2D2 from Star Wars more than they do a humanoid, but they are making a big impact on the field of medicine. Robots in medicine help by relieving medical personnel from routine tasks, that take their time away from more pressing responsibilities, and by making medical procedures safer and less costly for patients. They can also perform accurate surgery in tiny places and transport dangerous substances.
Robots You Already Know
Robotic medical assistants monitor patient vital statistics and alert the nurses when there is a need for a human presence in the room, allowing nurses to monitor several patients at once. These robotic assistants also automatically enter information into the patient electronic health record. Robotic carts may be seen moving through hospital corridors carrying supplies. Robots are also assisting in surgery, allowing doctors to conduct surgery through as tiny incision instead of an inches-long incision. Robotics is making a big impact in other areas of medicine, as well.
Robotic technologies appear in many areas that directly affect patient care. They can be used to disinfect patient rooms and operating suites, reducing risks for patients and medical personnel. They work in laboratories to take samples and the to transport, analyze, and store them. This is especially good news is you have ever had blood drawn by someone who had to try several times to find a "good vein." The robotic lab assistant can locate that vessel and draw the blood with less pain and anxiety for the patient. Robots also prepare and dispense medications in pharmacological labs. In larger facilities robotic carts carry bed linens and even meals from floor to floor, riding elevators and maneuvering through automatic doors. There are also "gears and wires" robotic assistants that help paraplegics move and can administer physical therapy.
Robotic personal assistants can be built to look friendly and the Japanese have taken the lead on this front. One of their machines, called Paro, responds to human speech and looks like a decidedly non-threatening baby seal. Other robotic technology is humanoid and used for help with personal care, socialization and for training. One used in training emergency personnel to respond to trauma, for instance, looks like a victim who screams, bleeds and even responds to treatment.
Replacing Human Workers
The ultimate question for robotics in healthcare is whether they will take jobs away from humans. There are several reasons why the machines will not replace their human counterparts. For one thing, most hospitals have less than 300 beds. They simply cannot afford the technology. The automated guided vehicles require a dedicated hall or floor tracks and the installation of navigation devices throughout the facilities. Other carts work with the help of a laser-drawn map of the hospital programmed into them that includes elevators, turns and automated doors. That process is also extremely expensive. But ultimately, robotic assistants cannot replace basic human contact.
Even though the technology is expensive and some of it is years from being implemented, the use of robots is changing healthcare and—in ways we can only imagine— will continue to do so.