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Image credit: Deposit Photos

There is a quiet robotic revolution occurring in the health sector that will prove crucial in an age of austerity, ageing and expanding populations, and medical staff shortages, writes Jeremy Russell, CEO of surgical robotic experts, OR Productivity .

 

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 (A.I.) and advanced algorithms – robots are, and will, make operations safer, faster, and more hygienic.

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

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

In England alone, recent research showed that NHS hospitals could undertake 17 per cent (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?

UWE Bristol researchers in the University of Bristol’s Robotics Laboratory (BRL) 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 A.I. 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.

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.

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. The Surgical Robotics Market was evaluated at $3bn in 2014, and is expected to double to $6bn by 2020, according to Allied Market Research. And due to a growing demand for minimally invasive procedures, the global market for laparoscopic devices alone is projected to reach $12.3bn by 2024.

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 JEREMY RUSSELL

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.

In the UK, the company is partnered with Amdel Medical and CLS Surgical to promote and supply the Mediflex product range to the NHS and Private Hospital groups. Its clinical support team works with hospitals to provide solutions and assist in implementing change to achieve economic and clinical benefits. http://freehandsurgeon.com/