The field of robotics is heating up with ever-growing innovations for healthcare. Forecasts from the UK's Visiongain suggest the overall world market for robotics in healthcare will surpass $3 billion this year and continue expanding to 2025.
"Surgical robots are currently the most dynamic submarket within the overall robotics in healthcare market," the company states. "Medical robots that exhibit both clinical and economical benefits over existing healthcare solutions are in great demand."
In the United States, Johnson & Johnson and Google have announced a strategic collaboration specifically to advance surgical robotics through new technologies designed to improve accuracy, cost efficiency and outcomes.
The deal involves Ethicon, a medical device company under Johnson & Johnson, and Google's Life Sciences team. The companies say they aim to integrate best-in-class medical device technology with leading-edge robotic systems, imaging and data analytics. The transaction is expected to close during the second quarter of 2015.
Real-world applications of robotics for providers
Among others raising the bar in robotics is the Robotics, Health and Communication Lab at the University of Notre Dame's Department of Computer Science and Engineering.
Lab director Laurel D. Riek, PhD, told Healthcare Dive some of what she sees on the horizon. One of her key interests is enabling robots to have safe and effective collaborations with people.
"Our research has implications for all healthcare stakeholders," she says. "For clinicians, we are designing new types of tools to help improve healthcare delivery and safety, all of which use robotics technology."
One of her team's projects involves designing new types of clinical education tools, such as high-fidelity robotic patient simulators that express patient pathologies in their faces such as neurological impairments, stroke, pain, etc.
"This will enable clinicians to practice treating far more realistic (and common) conditions, many of which are impossible to explore with existing off-the-shelf technology," she says.
On another project, Riek's team is designing tools to detect safety errors in surgical environments, in order to prevent errors before they happen. On another, they are building tools to help improve clinicians' situational awareness during critical events.
"Our work also has implications for patients," she says. "In our more basic research in robotics, we are working on projects to sense and anticipate people's needs, and also build robots that can learn new things. This technology will enable people with disabilities and older adults have greater independence throughout their lifespan."
As far as how the healthcare industry can expect to integrate robots over the coming years, Riek points toward the need to take care with their introduction and to look to robots only as a form of support.
"As a general rule of thumb, humans are best at performing caregiving tasks, and robots are best at supporting the caregivers," she says.
She notes that robots are ideal for tasks that put people at physical risk, such as moving patients and handling hazardous medical waste management.
"…if the purpose of the robot is to help human caregiver perform dangerous tasks, like checking the temperature of a patient with Ebola or lifting a 300 lb. patient, there isn't much to argue with," she says.
However, she adds that hospital administrators should be thoughtful and gradual when introducing new technology into the workplace. Such care may aid in acceptance and help alleviate any concerns about issues such as worker displacement.
With care and time, the potential is there for not only a trend toward acceptance, but demand.