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Rise of the Machines: A Look At Robotics Within Healthcare and Its Impact on Careers In The Sector

Rise of the Machines: A Look At Robotics Within Healthcare and Its Impact on Careers In The Sector

about 3 years ago by Julie McEwan

Artificial Intelligence and Human Factors in medicine and medical devices

It is hard to view social media, newspapers or television without seeing developments within artificial intelligence and the affects it has (and will continue to have) on the way we live our lives. For example, the 2018 Winter Olympics, in South Korea, will not only play host to athletes and avid fans but also 85 robots!! These will be utilised across a wide range of functions, from assisting visitors, making deliveries and working to prepare the various stadiums for the event. As if we needed the importance and historical precedent of this to be underlined, organisers have ensured it will remain in our memories for years to come as one robot will be given the traditionally honourable role of carrying the Olympic torch during the relay.

So what applications does AI already have in healthcare and how does this affect professionals already working in this sector and those aspiring to?

Robotics are already much more prevalent within healthcare than I had realised before I began to research for this blog. What also amazed me is not only the varying levels of applications that the technology has but also the vast range of benefits from financial cost, efficiency and dare I say it but emotional support too.


I guess this is an obvious point, because after all machine/technologies do not require rest, holidays or tea breaks so are obviously more productive than a human counterpart. One example is the Aethon TUG which is an automated system that can be utilised to make deliveries of physical products throughout a hospital/clinic setting and can make adhoc or scheduled deliveries via an electronic map. It sounds like a very simple concept (although the technology behind it is anything but) however, its output per day is equal to that of three staff members and the original outlay is less than the cost of hiring one employee – making it time and cost efficient. On a more serious level robotics are also improving early detection of disease in less invasive ways at a much higher rate than is possible using previous methods.  Mammograms for detection of breast cancer currently have a high false reporting rate – which ultimately lead to surgery which is unnecessary, costly and traumatic for the patient. By applying AI, the American Cancer Society have reported image results can be identified 30 times faster and with a 99% accuracy. Other devices that are assisting in Oncology treatment are ‘intelligent’ surgical knives which can identify cancerous tissue – again leading to much more positive outcomes for patients in the form of less time under anaesthetic, a reduction in additional surgeries for complete removal of the tumour and ensuring that as little healthy tissue as removed during the process as possible.

Indeed, the wearable devices that the vast majority of us wear, are also assisting. The data that is collected can be utilised for doctors to identify patterns that may put us at risk of developing certain diseases for instance lack of physical exercise, high blood pressure or changeable heart rhythms. This data also allows early diagnosis and treatment which is favourable for recovery, alongside promoting a healthier lifestyle. Advanced algorithms can also be deduced to assess patient records on a larger scale – again looking for trends and preventative measures for disease management.

Robotic disinfectants are being used in hospital environments in the US to reduce the prevalence of hospital acquired infections. They emit high intensity ultraviolet light that damages the negative microorganisms, on a cellular level, to reduce the risk of infection.  Allowing larger areas to be treated in a shorter amount of time and ultimately reducing additional complications for patients due to infections such as MRSA, which can be costly but more importantly deadly.


Perhaps the most interesting application (in my opinion) is that of microbots and other robotic devices that work internally within the human body. Microbots can be used to clear plaque from within arteries and one, called the Origami Robot, unfolds after ingestion to heal internal wounds in the stomach or remove foreign bodies. The path of the device is controlled by a magnetic field and research continues in order to try and develop a “remote controlled” ingestible device that can be navigated to a pre-determined site for drug focused delivery. Reminiscent of the film Inner Space from the 1980’s.

Advances can also assist in terms of access to medication for patients. Taking the burden from pharmacists to accurately process large amount of information and ultimately dispensing prescription medication via an ATM style hatch, allowing 24 hour collection, not to mention the positive application within drug discovery and streamlining the research process, reducing cost and ultimately bringing the drug successfully to market in less time. Clinical professionals are still essential; however, the more manual, large volume tasks can be removed from their workload for them to focus on aspects that require human review and decision making abilities. Particularly within the pharmacy, staff can focus more on illness prevention advice and interaction with patients than paperwork.


Robotics have increasingly been used within precision surgery with success. I was surprised to read that the very first application was as far back as 2000, and since then robotic arms or remote controlled devices have been used in thousands of operations across therapeutic areas such as heart disease and ophthalmic surgeries. Black box style recorders are being used to monitor surgeon’s performance using this technology, via video and analysis of collected movement data. Ensuring that the human element remains.

 Virtual reality is also now making an appearance in the operating theatre, whereby teams of surgeons wear headsets which show superimposed holograms over the patients to assist in procedures and very recently one surgery, utilising this technology, was livestreamed on the internet.

Emotional Support

This, for me, is the associated benefit that I find both hard to comprehend and pushing at the boundaries of science fiction. However, SoftBank Robotics have developed Pepper the Robot – which is the first humanoid robot that can recognise and distinguish between human emotions. Pepper has continual internet connection and thus access to the very latest information and is currently being utilised throughout the world in the retail sector. In healthcare, robotics have been utilised in Japan to provide assistance to the elderly in their own homes. This robot can assist with lifting and moving patients independently, but other offerings are being used in hospitals in conjunction with nursing support. “Cody” – produced by Healthcare Robotics can be operated and manoeuvred by the nurse in order for Cody to do the lifting. The positive of independently acting robotics is ultimately allowing the patient to remain in their home for longer; both emotionally and financially beneficial. The progress in telepresence technology allows doctors to communicate with and care for patients remotely and is due to the collaboration of technologies from iRobot and InTouch Health. The robotic presence in the patient’s home navigates again on an electronic map and has an iPad for interaction between the patient and doctor. It is hoped that building on existing humanoid technology like Pepper, ultimately AI will be able to hold ‘conversations’ with patients in order to reduce feelings of loneliness and reproduce social interactions.

The Future

It is clear to see that AI and robotics will continue to have an increased application within healthcare over the years to come, just as advances in technology affect all aspects of our life. My title of Rise of the Machines was only slightly tongue in cheek, although I am not suggesting that we will live in a world of robotic drones anytime soon, the fact that AI is advanced enough to recognise and identify human emotions is surprising. What is undeniable, certainly right now, is that doctors, nurses and other health care professionals are just as important to the sector as they have ever been and that although advances may free up their time from more menial time-consuming activities, their insight and decision making abilities are not even close to being removed from the process, not to mention the empathy and personal support that they provide. So, it continues that the collaboration of HCP’s and technological designers, innovators and entrepreneurs is just as important as it has ever been, its just that the ideas/solutions being shared are advancing at the rate of knots.

More Blogs from Julie McEwan

Julie has written numerous interesting and well researched blogs on a wide range of topics related to Medical Devices and Human Factors.  Please click here to read more of Julie's blogs and here to find out more about Julie.