Artificial intelligence: are we on the verge of a medical robotics take over?

The NHS is moving into a digital era; we skip a little ahead of ourselves and look at what artificial intelligence may mean to medical robotics and healthcare delivery of the future. Jeremy Russell, CEO of OR Productivity, talks shop

Robots are already bringing down the cost of healthcare, eliminating human error, streamlining operating theatres, reducing operating time and, crucially, freeing-up staff for more pressing matters. With their pinpoint precision, remarkable artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced algorithms – robots are, and will, make operations safer, faster, and more hygienic.

However, according to the World Health Organization, we will still have a 14 million global needs-based shortage of health-care workers by 2030.

Technology is the key

Thought leaders like Dr Bertalan Mesko, founder of the Medical Futurist website, believe that technology will be the key to meeting such challenges, predicting that methods of automation – such as AI robotics and 3D printing – will help to make healthcare sustainable and efficient.

In England alone, recent research showed that NHS hospitals could undertake 17% (280,000) more non-emergency operating procedures every year with better-organised operating theatre schedules – suggesting that operating theatres are significantly underutilised, with each procedure becoming costlier as a result.

So how fast will the medical sector embrace these technologies? And, what might they look like?

The future looks digital

UWE Bristol researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), a collaboration between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol, are creating new robotic tools and devices to be used semi-automatically under the supervision of surgeons during invasive medical procedures.

BRL’s Dr Sanja Dogramadzi, who researches the use of robotic technologies to repair complex joint fractures, believes these tools have the potential to aid orthopaedic, abdominal and cardiovascular surgery. “By using minimally invasive access to organs and tissues, robotic tools can help to reduce trauma, speed up recovery and minimise costs,” she said. In her field, small robotic tools can be used to perform closed-joint reduction ‘with minimal invasion’.

On a larger scale, Google is now working with Johnson and Johnson’s medical device company, Ethicon, to develop AI surgical robots to assist surgeons during invasive operations. The tech giant, which will provide the software, believes it can use the machine vision and image analysis it has developed for self-driving cars and other ventures.

The partnership will seek to use advanced imaging and sensors to assist surgeons by highlighting blood vessels, nerve cells, tumour margins or other important structures that could be hard to discern in tissue by eye or on a screen, the Guardian reported.

The technology will also incorporate augmented reality to combine the numerous feeds of information currently spread across multiple monitors.

Surgical alternatives

Other existing robotic alternatives such as the Da Vinci Surgical System use a magnified 3D high-definition vision system with tiny flexible instruments far more maneuverable than the human hand. This system eases and enhances a surgeon’s ability to operate safely and efficiently, yet has been limited in its use by high running costs.

OR Productivity’s FreeHand system holds and manipulates laparoscopes and cameras during keyhole surgical procedures, providing a rock-steady image. It also eliminates the need for at least one camera-holding medical assistant, and in-turn brings down the procedural costs.

Safer, faster, cheaper

Robotic and technological systems will provide safer and faster operations to benefit both patients and surgeons, as well as lower costs for health service providers. It will also bring greater peace of mind to patients, due to the reduced risk of human error, faster recovery times and smaller surgical scars.

We are not yet within the realms of seeing surgeons made redundant by robots. But, market projections appear to predict that robotic surgery is winning the economic argument.

So as robotics – in all sectors – become more and more advanced, we may well need mass-retraining of workers and/or the life raft of a citizen’s income, and as Joshua M. Brown, the influential New York City financial advisor predicts, the simple answer is to invest in the very technology driving these radical changes: “Just own the damn robots”, he believes, is the solution.

About the author
Jeremy Russell, CEO of OR Productivity, creators of FreeHand. ORP designs and manufactures cost-effective robotic systems that hold and manipulate laparoscopes during surgical procedures.


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