Artificial intelligence and robotics are the two technologies that have shown the potential to address and provide solutions to many contemporary issues. The manufacturing sector has been using robotics for quite a long time. However, over the past three-four decades, robots are in use in other sectors as well, such as laboratory research, earth and space exploration, transport, and many more. The use of robots has lowered production costs and increased productivity and at the same time, led to the creation of many new jobs in the tech sector along with the growth in the economy. Robots are mainly employed where the tasks require repetitive and monotonous work; however, with Artificial intelligence (AI), the scope is widening. They are replacing the human workers and providing efficient results. As per the International Federation of Robotics, the automation of production is accelerating around the world: 74 robot units per 10,000 employees is the new average of global robot density in the manufacturing industries (2015: 66 units).

As the application and capabilities are improving day by day, sectors such as healthcare and its allied fields are also adopting robots for accomplishing different tasks. Today robots are used for complicated surgeries, clinical training, medicine dispensing, personal care, and many others. According to the International Federation of Robotics, sales of medical robots increased by 73% compared to 2016 to 2,931 units in 2017, accounting for a share of 2.7% of the total unit sales of professional service robots. Robot-assisted surgery or therapy is the most critical application of robots in healthcare. However, the demand for other services is also increasing significantly.

What are the top 5 applications of robots in healthcare?

Surgeries –  Surgery has emerged as one of the critical applications of robots in the past few decades and is getting much wider attention. The surgical robots offer a 3-D view along with high-definition and magnification capabilities. Robot-assisted surgeries are “minimally invasive” than traditional surgical procedures and are more precise and flexible.

In 2000, the da Vinci Surgical System was the first robotic surgical platform for general laparoscopic surgery approved by the FDA for commercial use in the United States. With advancements in technology, much progress has been achieved in 3D high-definition and magnification; it is possible to operate surgery through one or a few small incisions. Today, robots in combination with AI use the data from past operations to perform new surgeries and are yielding much better results.

To the patients, robots mean reduced hospital-stay and fewer complications. Robots are extensively being used for surgical procedures such as orthopedic, urological, bariatric, gynecological, and many others. The surgical-robots hold substantial future growth potential. To gain a competitive advantage, some of the key companies at the global level, such as Intuitive Surgical, Johnson & Johnson, Zimmer Biomet, Stereotaxis, Accuray, Smith & Nephew, Mazor Robotics, Auris Health, Globus Medical, Stryker, Siemens Healthineers (Corindus), and Medtronic are involved in developing surgical robots. 

Clinical Training – Clinical Training Robots are realistic simulation devices that can enhance the healthcare provider’s skills and knowledge. One of the latest and most advanced examples of a training robot is Pediatric Hal. Pediatric Hal is an artificial intelligence robot manufactured by Gaumard Scientific. Pediatric Hal can mimic like a five-year-old child and exhibit symptoms of cardiac arrest and arrhythmia. It can also perform a dozen of facial expressions, mimic crying, and imitate rapid breathing, providing a real “working under pressure” condition to the healthcare trainees.

Prescription Dispensing / sensitive materials – Dispensing robots are used to distribute medication and handle sensitive materials in hospital settings. Dispensing robots are quite beneficial as they can dispense medicine at a very high speed and accuracy. Similarly, they can also handle sensitive liquids or viscous materials.

Care/Services – The demand for robots in the care segment is also increasing significantly. The challenges faced by the elderly population and the people affected by dementia and other mental diseases is the main driver for care robot demand. Care robots help patients perform some necessary day-to-day activities such as providing mobility and transportation support, performing routine body check-ups (like temperature, blood pressure, sugar levels), fetching food and water, reminding medication, and many others. The care robots are quite handy and ease the daily burden on healthcare professionals. With the increase in capabilities and growing aging population, the demand for care robots is likely to increase in the coming years. 

Disinfection and Sanitation – Lack of hygiene and poor sanitation can lead to many diseases, and to carry out the disinfection and sanitation process, hospitals are deploying robots. These specialized robots scan the hospital environment and carry out the air circulating and surface disinfection process. UV sterilization robots, in particular, kill bacteria, viruses, and other harmful microorganisms that can cause infections. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the disinfection and sanitation robots segment observed a significant demand. Blue Ocean Robotics, Intellibot Robotics LLC, IRobot Corporation, Skytron, Bioquell, Ecovacs Robotics, Lumalier Corp, Siemens are some of the key companies involved in developing disinfection and sanitation robots at the global level. 

Telepresence – Telepresence, also known as Telemedicine Robots, makes it accessible for the doctor to connect with the patient from remote locations. 

Logistics/Delivery  – To perform hospitals’ logistics tasks, a new type of robot called logistics robots are available in the market today. The logistics robots are equipped with navigation systems that help them to perform basic tasks such as moving food and water, lab samples, beddings, and medications within the hospital premises. 

Rehabilitation Robots, Receptionist Robots, Nursing Robots, Ambulance Robots, and Physical Therapy Robots are also generating significant demand.

What are the benefits of robotics in healthcare?

The extensive use of robots in delivering healthcare services makes it crystal clear that the use of robots is going to be a common sight in near future. With different applications and benefits, robotics in healthcare holds the potential to revolutionize the sector. It is equally beneficial to both healthcare providers and patients. Robotic surgery, in particular, has reduced the risk of infection due to smaller incisions and leads to a shorter hospitalization time. Being less invasive, it reduces blood loss, transfusions and improves the recovery time for the patients. These also decrease the physician’s workload, and to the patients, it decreases stress and makes the process less scary. The robots in the logistics, care, and disinfection segment are cheaper to maintain and more comfortable to handle and train. They have provided remarkable service to the task, which demands very odd and are repetitive in nature.

What are some disadvantages of medical robots?

Every coin has two sides. While there are innumerable benefits of employing robots to run errands in healthcare, there are chances of errors and failures. There is always some scope for human error or mechanical failure with these advanced robots. A single mechanical malfunction can cost human lives. In the case of surgical robots, small risks of infection and bleeding can’t be neglected. 

Another major disadvantage is the cost factor. The use of surgical robots is limited to the developed countries, research centers, and advanced hospitals. Similarly to patients, in some cases, it is out of their reach to afford robotic surgeries. Also, the healthcare provider needs to invest a lot of money and time to train the workforce to handle robots; besides, their lifetime maintenance cost is another problematic factor.

What is the future of robotics in healthcare?

With new applications and features, healthcare robots are expected to increase the quality, operational efficiencies, accuracy, and safety in healthcare service delivery. The advancement in AI will provide a new dimension to robotics. As expected the combination of Artificial intelligence and robotics will make the operation faster and much safer. Apart from this, data analytics, improvement in hardware and software systems will diversify robots’ scope in other healthcare fields. The investment and the collaboration between the robotic companies and healthcare providers will further boost the Healthcare robots market. However, the robots’ cost and the affordability by the common person will remain the key challenges to address.