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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Robotics in healthcare: challenges and opportunities

Medical Design
Jan 27, 2012

RIVA compounding system installed in a hospital pharmacy.

The healthcare industry is unlikely to adopt robots unless the risk and the investment are small. Concrete evidence of success is needed before taking on the larger opportunities.
  •  Why robots in healthcare
  • Obstacles to adoption
  • Meeting the requirements for success
With all the interest and money being directed towards robotics in healthcare, it may seem like there couldn’t be anything new to say. Everyone knows that robots are the future of healthcare, and it is generally recognized that an increasing number of people will need healthcare, with the impending retirement of “baby boomers” being only one reason, while the number of people providing that care is dropping. Still, we haven’t seemed to have been able to make the leap to mass utilization of robots in any area of the typical hospital. It’s not that there aren’t opportunities. Two factors that contribute to the lack of robots in healthcare are (1) the targeted areas are mission-critical and even modest problems would be catastrophic, and (2) the uncertainties of the robotic solutions outweigh the perceived benefits. Healthcare needs a pathfinder application in which the risk and the investment are small so that the industry can see some concrete evidence of success before taking on the larger opportunities.

Let’s consider a bit of history. The word ‘robot’ was first used by Karl Capek in his play “R.U.R.” (which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots) that debuted in 1921. He derived the word from the Czech word robota and used it with reference to mechanical humanoids built to perform menial and repetitive tasks. While the play focused on how this intended purpose oppressed the robots, Capek was onto something: repetitive tasks are exactly the type of work where robots surpass humans.

When faced with a repetitive task that requires constant attention to detail, even the most diligent and dedicated human will make an occasional mistake. Once a robot is set up and programmed to perform a task, however, it will perform that task in exactly the same way each and every time without variation. This is not without its own problems, because most robots cannot accommodate even minor changes in the environment that a person would handle without even noticing a problem. An example would be a robot programmed to grip and pick up a soda can from a table while being unable to deal with a can that has fallen over on its side. A great deal of research has gone into making robots more aware or their surroundings and able to handle a limited amount of variation. These robots are neither simple nor cheap.

What may not be obvious is that we are surrounded by robots and use them continuously. In its simplest form, a robot is a device that performs one or more actions in response to one or more stimuli. While there may be a gray area somewhere along the spectrum between a mechanical typewriter and the autonomous vehicles of the DARPA Challenge, a workable definition of a robot is a device that incorporates a programmable processor wherein the actions of the device vary significantly depending on the input received. This excludes a toaster that uses a microprocessor to regulate the temperature of the heating element; however, the vending machine in the cafeteria and the ATM at your bank may qualify as robots. The self-parking cars built by Ford, Lexus, and Toyota definitely qualify as robots. It’s likely that many of the things that you use on a daily basis, from the inkjet cartridges in your printer to the car that you drive, were built on a production line that includes dozens if not hundreds of robots, each performing a specific task.
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