The healthcare industry, which is facing a severe human resource crunch, is getting a shot in the arm in the form of automation technology. Now, there are automated equipment, and even robotic workers. Will robot scientists be next on the horizon?
by Swaminathan Vangal-Ramamurthy
Medical workers face immense pressure at work. Especially in hospital and critical care environments where many workers work shifts, and manage patients who need constant medical attention. Add to this a severe shortage of skilled healthcare workers at many of these facilities, especially in rapidly aging societies like Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the United Kingdom, and you have a ‘pressure cooker’ industry.
Robotic technology may just be the answer to some of these challenges in the healthcare industry. Robotic equipment with Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity can communicate with other devices to coordinate and sync data directly. Advanced sensors also allow robots to independently perform mundane, rudimentary and time-consuming tasks. With artificial intelligence (AI) technology developing rapidly, there is a rising possibility that robots can take on much of the work that needs to be done in healthcare.
This article assesses where robots stand today in the healthcare industry; the benefits they bring, as well as, the potential of us seeing full fledge ‘robot doctors’ in practice in the future.
Smarter connected equipment
The proliferation of connected devices, or what is now commonly called IoT, is changing the way we work, live and play. For example, our smart phones have become more than telephones and personal digital assistants, but also our entertainment centres, primary information and news outlets, messaging and video conferencing tools, and so on. We have come to completely rely on IoT devices.
Smarter connected devices are also quickly being adapted in the healthcare environment, often replacing traditional equipment that are susceptible to unexpected and undetected failure. Smarter equipment can be programmed to quickly alert staff of equipment faults, ensuring that decision-dependent patient data is accurate, and functioning well at all times.
In a more futuristic setting, smarter beds can help staff accurately monitor patient progress by tracking their movement, sleeping patterns and of course vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure helping to ease manpower requirement. In another example, smart labels can be applied on medication to allow for automated tracking of stock. This way, inventories can be updated in real time with orders automatically placed when supplies run low.
Robots as support staff
Beyond smart connectivity technologies, robots can play a significant role in helping to ease the resource crunch by driving up efficiency and boosting productivity. Many robots are already deployed in healthcare facilities to take on mundane, rudimentary or time-consuming tasks.
Omron mobile robots, for example, function as Autonomous Vehicles helping to quickly and safely move items, such as case files, bulky equipment, patients’ meals or medicine, from one location to another in hospitals.
Many hospitals across Japan are already using robots to deliver medicine in the night time. In Singapore, where the Health Ministry estimates that it needs to fill 9,000 medical support positions by 2020 to meet the rising demands of an aging population, robots are also being tested in hospitals, especially for porter services – delivering items from point to point.
Autonomous vehicles equipped with advanced sensors can navigate hospital corridors and navigate around obstacles. Some are also capable of communicating with other hospital equipment or robots to inform of routing or call for the next available robot when service is required.
Robots are particularly useful for their ability to operate 24/7. Automated robots do not require much human intervention, and units can be replaced when they require maintenance or servicing. This way, they free up human workers so that they can attend to more complex tasks that require some form of cognitive analytical input or decision making that robots are incapable of doing.
More than just logistics
Robots are not limited to performing mundane tasks such as transportation.
A robot ‘scientist’ named Eve could go down in the history books for playing a pivotal role in the discovery of a possible antimalarial drug. Eve spotted Tricolan, a common ingredient in toothpaste, that could possibly limit the growth of a malaria parasite during the blood stage. Created by a group of scientists at the Universities of Manchester, Aberystwyth and Cambridge, Eve was engineered to automate early-stage drug development.
Her robotic systems have been paired with artificial intelligence that can build and analyse known relationships between certain chemical structures and biological activity. Eve uses this model to predict what new chemicals will achieve a desired result, and with her robotic arms, carries out thousands of tests while adding the new data to her model to determine if she is heading in the right direction.
Another important sub-sector of healthcare that stands to benefit from robots is elderly care. Nursing homes in China, a country with a growing elderly population, has started using robots to provide care for the elderly. These robots are able to assist doctors and nurses monitor blood pressure and other health information. Robots can also help to provide companionship to the elderly in nursing homes.
What is next?
The fact is robots are going to be a mainstay in the healthcare and medical industry. They are already making an impact at basic porter services levels, and making a difference in drug discovery and care for the elderly. The true value that robotics bring to the industry will be hard to determine. For instance, robots now free up manpower that can be reassigned to focus on more value-added tasks. They also speed up many medical processes and have proved to be important assets to medical practitioners.
Needless to say, robotics technology will certainly continue to advance. Across the globe, thousands of malaria patients could benefit from Eve’s discovery in time to come. With teams in corporate and university research labs making progress daily in robotics, we may just be a day away from the next breakthrough.
- TODAY. The Big Read: Beyond a jobs boost, healthcare sector needs a new model of care, say experts (26 Nov 2016)
Swaminathan Vangal-Ramamurthy is the general manager of robotics business division at Omron Asia Pacific