How Robots Are Changing Healthcare
Perhaps Čapek’s vision was prescient. We are still afraid. First robots will take our jobs and then they will destroy us and become rulers of the universe. It’s only a matter of time, right? Perhaps, but in the real world scientists have been developing robots over the last 60 years or so with the aim of assisting rather than destroying us – so it’s no surprise that some of the most exciting advances in robotics are taking place in the realm of healthcare.
The first surgical robot, the Arthrobot, designed to assist in orthopaedic surgery, was developed in Canada in the mid-1980s by researchers at the University of British Colombia under the direction of Dr James McEwan, Director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Vancouver General Hospital .
In 1998, Dr Friedrich-Wilhelm Mohr used the daVinci, a robotic surgical system produced by Californian company Intuitive, to perform the first robot-assisted heart bypass at the Leipzig Heart Centre in Germany. It was approved for use in the US in 2000 and the UK in 2001 and for the past two decades it has dominated the field of robotic surgery, with more than 4,500 now in use worldwide .
Rivals are appearing on a regular basis. In the UK, for example, where daVinci is currently in use in more than 70 hospitals, this year will see the introduction of Versius, developed by Cambridge Medical Robotics (CMR) .
Things could become very interesting in the next few years. In 2015, Google entered the surgical robotics business, partnering with Johnson & Johnson to form Verb Surgical. In typical Silicon Valley style, the company is promising “Surgery 4.0”, a platform that will combine robotics, visualization, advanced instrumentation, data analytics and connectivity to “democratise surgery”. Verb Surgical demonstrated its first digital surgery prototype in 2017  and expects to bring its first surgical robot to market in 2020 .
Toyota has developed a robotic leg brace, the Welwalk WW-1000, to help patients with partial paralysis on one side of their body to walk again.
Mabu, from Catalia Health, marketed as a “portable healthcare companion”, is a desktop robot that talks to patients in their homes about their health, collecting data communicating it to their care team. Its primary purpose, according to its creator, CEO of Catalia Health Dr Cory Kidd, is to make sure patients follow the treatment plans recommended by their doctors.
Zora, from ZoraBots, marketed as a “personal caregiver”, is a playful robot designed to provide companionship and motivation for patients, particularly older patients in care homes. “We need to help with loneliness,” Tommy Deblieck, the co-Chief Executive of ZoraBots told The New York Times.
In the field of mental health Woebot, a chatbot, accessible via an iOS app, uses the principles of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to help users cope with feelings of anxiety or depression. Developed by a team of psychologists, it aims “to make mental health radically accessible to everyone”.
Last year, Professor Ara Darzi, Lord Darzi of Denham, a leading British surgeon, Paul Hamlyn Chair of Surgery at Imperial College London and a pioneer in the field of robot-assisted surgery produced a report on the NHS for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) that called for a the government to embrace “automation” and proposed the use of “Bedside robots” to assist patients at mealtimes and with rehabilitation and “care-bots” to improve social care.
“The NHS turns 70 this year but we must turn our sights to the future. We should not accept an analogue NHS in a digital decade,” declared Darzi’s report.
There is nothing to fear. The robots will soon be taking care of us all.
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