Robotics is revolutionising the way healthcare staff work together and how patients are treated. This is a necessary evolution if we are to meet the workforce requirements over the coming decade. The shortage of clinical professionals represents a profound challenge for the developed nations where the combination of an ageing population and a retiring workforce create challenges in how best to deliver quality care.

Robotics will be one of the answers for dealing with this dilemma. The sharing of skills, techniques and procedures across geographies, without the physical presence of the practitioner is now a reality. Sharing knowledge, supporting primary clinicians and enabling specialists by offering their skills instantly on a remote basis, will increase the quality of care throughout the world. The US is leading the way with pioneering techniques, but other developed countries, are poised to adopt robotics within their healthcare structures and are watching with an eager eye to take advantage of developments.

Robotics in healthcare is a product of the technological developments that have been rapidly advancing over recent years. Computer engineering, the internet and telecommunications systems collectively are enabling tools for healthcare professionals. It is the combination of computerised technology and communications connectivity that has made robotics a reality, shaping the future of patient care. Specifically, robotics contributes in the following ways:

  • Accuracy: Currently, robotics is largely used in two key medical areas; ophthalmology and urology. The primary reason for use in these two specialties relates to the precision required during procedures and surgery. Ophthalmologists perform microsurgery that requires extremely steady movement during the surgery. The more complex and microscopic the surgery, the greater the need for control. All humans have a natural, slight tremor in their movement. With the use of robotics, however, tremors are virtually eradicated. Additionally, urologists require the same steadiness, skill and expertise to carry out refined and specialist surgical procedures.
  • Non-invasive approach: Robotics can also facilitate a non-invasive approach to surgical procedures. There is increasing evidence that the use of robotics in surgery may decrease medical complications, such as blood loss, a key factor in enabling a faster recovery time for the patient.
  • Remote services: Through its Undersea Project, NASA has served as a pioneer in the field by funding research in the use of surgical robotics on a remote basis. And if Stephen Hawkins’ theory is to be proven – citing space as the long-term solution for the future of mankind – life forms will need to be self-sufficient in any eventuality, and this includes healthcare.

As the take-up of robotics gathers pace, other technological advancements are also serving as a catalyst to its uptake. As the most rapid technological development of the twenty-first century, the internet allows data and knowledge skills to be transferred instantly around the globe. This information superhighway has enabled remote communications in ways that we could not even fathom a decade ago. Teleconferencing using Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) technology and fast data transfer of patient records or statistics for analysis, complements the use of robotics during diagnosis or surgery. It is the ability of the internet to provide speed of data transfer that has enabled medical practitioners to pioneer the use of robotics in their work and education of procedures.

Many efforts are in process to create dedicated telecommunication networks that will support the healthcare community with secure, confidential information sharing. A dedicated telecommunications resource will clearly make it feasible for medical practitioners to offer advice, consultancy and support from a remote, confidential and secure base.

For example, remote working management hubs that support specialised units, such as intensive care, are being deployed. It is very clear that one of the major problems in the intensive care unit is that care delivery is frequently distracted by ‘events’. E-intensive care provides a remotely-based, specialist consultative support solution to intensive care staff at the frontline. Their focus is on managing the data rather than the patient. It’s clear that this contributes to better quality care.

Remote presence using technology

In an environment where time is of the essence, remote management of data can make the difference in outcomes. Should a change occur in the patient’s condition, onsite medical staff can be quickly contacted to take action. This type of remote presence using technology saves lives and will inevitably be rolled out into other environments, such as the emergency and outpatient room to better manage patient care, and ultimately reduce mortality rates.

It is this kind or sharing of resource and expertise that has made robotics in healthcare viable. Developed countries such as the US and UK have historically addressed the shortage of professional support in healthcare by recruiting medical professionals from other locations, most frequently the developing world. But, as economics proves, simply moving people around, like commodities, has a saturation point. And, longer-term the strategy will not succeed.

Yet, there are not enough providers to care for people using our existing paradigm for care delivery. This dilemma can be solved through the appropriate deployment of technology, allowing professional medical staff to work remotely, therefore bridging the gap between shortage and need. Remote consultation can also help medical professionals teach and support on a global level, allowing practices to be deployed and adopted more rapidly across multiple geographies.

One example is InTouch Technologies (http://www.intouchhealth.com), a pioneer in the use of robotic telecommunications for clinicians. It enables clinicians to offer support without being physically present. Robots with two-way screens are used on-site by clinicians. Both parties can see and hear each other, and the consultant is able to offer treatment advice to the local physician without being physically present. In essence, the expertise of the specialist is available on a remote basis to the generalist, immediately, through the use of robotic technology.

Remote medical consultation will offer healthcare the opportunity to deliver care more productively in the future. With medical resources increasingly becoming a precious commodity, healthcare trusts are looking for ways to address the economies of scale effectively and efficiently. Robotics in healthcare allows medical expertise to be deployed without the added cost of travel and time, thus driving down the overall expense. In a profession where time is a critical factor with lives depending on rapid response, the use of robotics often means that patient survival and recovery statistics can be greatly improved, therefore the true worth of its role in healthcare may never ever be calculated.

While the US currently leads the way, other countries such as the UK, India and Australia are working in collaboration with medical centres as the widespread use of robotics in healthcare gathers pace. Indeed, it is anticipated that developed countries, such as the UK, will leapfrog current US development of robotics and deploy proven technologies into its medical structures. The NHS is developing a backbone infrastructure for supporting medical practice in the UK – a perfect environment for the deployment of robotics in the near future. In any case, the future of robotics in healthcare looks set to be a revolutionary one.