During the COVID-19 pandemic, robots were introduced in several hospitals to help protect frontline healthcare workers from exposure to the contagious virus, taking on jobs such as cleaning, consulting with patients (delivering telemedicine), and even assisting in surgery.
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While the use of robotics had been emerging in healthcare for many years, the pandemic highlighted the importance of and breadth of robotics applications, shining a light on a potential robotic future in healthcare, which we discuss here.
Shielding Healthcare Professionals from Contagious Diseases
Scientists have warned that we may be entering an 'era of pandemics', a time when contagious diseases will take advantage of the rapid urbanization of the globe alongside the ease of international travel, resulting in outbreaks - like that of COVID-19, which spread rapidly through the population.
The COVID-19 pandemic taught us the importance of protecting frontline healthcare professionals from exposure to the infectious diseases they are treating. Across the world, healthcare systems were often unprepared for the strain of the pandemic, with PPE scarce and illness reducing the numbers of healthcare staff to the extent that quality of care could not be maintained. Robots in these scenarios protect the staff by reducing the number of face-to-face interactions required; it also takes the pressure off the need for PPE.
Robots can be used to assist with cleaning, removing traces of contagious disease from healthcare settings to protect patients, visitors and staff, thus preventing the spread of the disease. Robots have also been developed to collect information and communicate with the patient without the need for a healthcare member to be physically present. This is known as telemedicine and we discuss this further below.
The Rise of Telemedicine
In April 2020, the use of telemedicine for office visits and outpatient care had risen by 78 times what it was in February of the same year. Now that we have established a connected world, where 83.72% of the world's population owns a smartphone, healthcare is beginning to recognize the benefits of leveraging digital devices to deliver healthcare more efficiently, cost-effectively, and safely. While the telemedicine revolution was underway before the pandemic, the COVID-19 outbreak kickstarted it, as people found themselves needing healthcare without being able to physically visit a doctor.
Telemedicine is available in many countries around the world via numerous mobile applications. It is possible to make video appointments with GPs or even receive talking therapy via an app. In hospitals, telemedicine has gone several steps further. Scientists have developed robots that can be controlled remotely to perform many tasks required for patient care that a nurse would usually perform in person.
Cameras and sensors can act as the eyes and ears, and the robot's body can be used to perform necessary tasks. As technology develops, it is likely that these robots will become more sophisticated and be able to carry out more complex tasks. In recent years, many significant advances have been made both in the field of health sensors and augmented reality, which will no doubt be leveraged in healthcare robotics.
Given the importance of improving social distancing to prevent and control outbreaks of infectious diseases, it is likely that these kinds of robots will become commonplace in hospitals worldwide.
Using Robotics in Surgery
Perhaps the earliest use of robotics in healthcare is robotic surgery. The first recorded instance of this happening is back in the 1980s, with the help of Robodoc, an orthopedic image-guided system, to perform a prosthetic hip replacement.
Over recent decades, robotic surgery has made significant advancements and is now common in most hospitals, as the benefits of robotically-assisted surgery (a minimally invasive surgery known as key-hole surgery) have allowed it to prevail over traditional surgery in many fields such as gynecology, gastroenterology, and urology, to name a few.
Now, robotic surgery is advancing even further with the advent of telesurgery. Telesurgery is a surgical method that uses robotic technology together with wireless networks to allow surgeons to operate on patients at a distance. This technology means that patients can be operated on by surgeons who are experts in their field, even if they live far away, in another country or continent. This innovative, emerging technology overcomes many limitations such as the shortage of surgeons, the inequalities in global healthcare systems, lack of immediate access to high-quality surgical care, and the need for long-distance travel to receive life-saving surgery.
While there have been numerous advances in telesurgery in the last two decades, there has been a lack of clinical trials in this method. Without trials to test and improve the technique, telesurgery faces limitations such as latency time, a lack of fully developed training programs and standard operating protocols, and funding issues. Over the coming years, it is likely that we will see clinical trials exploring telesurgery to improve on this method so it can be fully launched into clinical use.
References and Further Reading
Choi, P., Oskouian, R. and Tubbs, R., 2018. Telesurgery: Past, Present, and Future. Cureus,10(5): e2716. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6067812/
George, E., Brand, T., LaPorta, A., Marescaux, J. and Satava, R., 2018. Origins of Robotic Surgery: From Skepticism to Standard of Care. JSLS : Journal of the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons, 22(4), pp.e2018.00039. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6261744/
Peter Daszak (2020). We are entering an era of pandemics – it will end only when we protect the rainforest [online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/28/pandemic-era-rainforest-deforestation-exploitation-wildlife-disease (Accessed May 2022)
Raje, S., Reddy, N., Jerbi, H., Randhawa, P., Tsaramirsis, G., Shrivas, N. V., Pavlopoulou, A., Stojmenović, M., and Piromalis, D. 2021. Applications of Healthcare Robots in Combating the COVID-19 Pandemic. Applied bionics and biomechanics, 2021, 7099510.
Zemmar, A., Lozano, A.M. and Nelson, B.J. 2020. The rise of robots in surgical environments during COVID-19. Nat Mach Intell 2, 566–572. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-020-00238-2