Robotics in Healthcare – Beam Me Up or Be Gone?

When you hear the word “robot” like most, you probably begin thinking of a fictional, sci-fi movie – Star Wars; Short Circuit; I, Robot, etc., rarely would you think healthcare. Given the recent uptick in the use of robotics within the health sector, this could soon change.

Robotics is not a foreign concept to the healthcare industry.  In fact, the use of robots was introduced to the world of medicine back in the 1980’s. However, in recent years, the increased pressure from healthcare reform and the rigorous requirements for patient safety, better clinical outcomes, and reduced labor costs are leading to an exponential growth in the demand for robotics, not only for direct clinical care but in many other segments of healthcare such as sanitation, sterilization, lab processing and materials handling1.

Many people do not fully understand the types of robots within healthcare and this often times leads to misconceptions in their use and value. According to “Healthcare Robotics 2015-2020: Trends, Opportunities & Challenges” report, released by the Robotics Business Review, robots in healthcare can be categorized into three main areas2:

  1. Direct patient care robots: surgical robots (used for performing clinical procedures), exoskeletons (for bionic extensions of self), and prosthetics (replacing lost limbs).
  2. Indirect patient care robots: pharmacy robots (streamlining automation, autonomous robots for inventory control), delivery robots (providing medical goods throughout a hospital autonomously), and disinfection robots (interacting with people with known infectious diseases such as healthcare-associated infections or HAIs).
  3. Home healthcare robots: robotic telepresence solutions (addressing the aging population with robotic assistance).

All three types of these robots have a significant impact in decreasing cost, improving efficiency and improving quality patient care.

Decreasing Cost & Improving Efficiency

It is no surprise, that healthcare organizations are constantly looking for innovative ways to help reduce cost and minimize waste. Automation of redundant, labor intensive tasks is at the top of most cost and waste reduction strategies due to the high labor dollars, employee safety concerns, and medical errors associated with these types of activities.

Used by more than 150 hospitals across the nation, the TUG robot, a courier robot developed by Pittsburgh-based Aethon, has begun to help health systems address all of these issues and more.

Labor Cost & Efficiency- TUG can haul carts, weighing up to 1000 pounds, through the hospital halls delivering medical supplies, medication, blood, meals, linens, and more,  using  ‘laser whiskers’ to avoid obstacles and humans, and wirelessly open doors, and call for elevators3. “One TUG robot working two shifts a day, seven days a week, does the equivalent labor of 2.8 full time employees, but costs less than one full time employee3” and can reduce cost per delivery by 80%.

Safety – The TUG can also alleviate worker’s comp costs and safety issues. Tony Melanson, Vice President of Marketing for Aethon notes that, “compared to industry, hospitals have four times the rate of days lost due to illness and injury. Part of this is due to running around the hospital with these very large carts pulling very large loads, and sometimes pulling two of them at a time. You have back and wrist injuries, and repetitive stress injuries. There are real cost savings related to reducing those types of injuries4.” Melanson also notes that these kinds of undesirable service jobs have 30 percent turnover – “If you can reduce the churn of replacing people, those are very real costs that can be avoided.4

Medical Errors – Notoriously known for being one of the highest cost centers within the hospital setting, the pharmacy department can drastically benefit from the use of automated technologies.  The use of TUG at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center has proven highly impactful in regards to reducing prescription errors. They use TUG to fill prescriptions – and it does so with high efficiency and accuracy5. The Working Capital noted, “Whereas handwritten prescriptions needed to be scanned and pills counted into bottles by human hand, digital prescriptions can be accessed by the robot and a robotic arm counts the pills”. This has resulted in a 0% error rate, versus 2.8% for humans5 resulting in cost savings associated with medical errors.

Improving Quality Patient Care

Delivering quality care is of the utmost importance to healthcare providers, driving the need to push the boundaries of “standard” of care. The use of robotics has been shown to significantly improve the diagnosis and care provided to patients.

Better Outcomes -The use of robotic assisted surgery has grown extensively since the introduction of the da Vinci Surgical System back in 2000. Da Vinci is the most well-known medical robot – having successfully completed over three million assisted surgeries. Teleoperated robots, like the da Vinci, allow surgeons to see and reach areas with greater flexibility, not previously possible, allowing for more precise movements and control through a smaller incision – minimizing the risk of infections, lessening hospital stays, reducing pain and scarring and providing quicker recovery and optimal outcomes.

Targeted Treatment6 – Researchers are experimenting with micro-sized robots (mircobots or nanobots) that are meant to freely swim through bodily fluids to diagnose and treat a variety of diseases. They are designed to enter the body and deliver drugs at a specific location, provide other medical relief in a highly-targeted way and perhaps even perform precise operations like clearing clogged arteries. These “bots” have the potential to reduce the number of surgeries currently required for various procedures.

Improved Safety7 – Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in the United States 1 in every 25 patients will contract hospital acquired infections (HAIs) and 1 in 9 will die as a result, costing the healthcare industry than $30 billion dollars a year. The Xenex Robot can help combat these preventable infections.  According to the Medical Futurist, it allows for fast and effective systematic disinfection of any space within a healthcare facility – destroying deadly microorganisms causing HAIs by utilizing special UV disinfection methodologies. It is more effective in causing cellular damage to microorganisms than other devices for disinfection, thereby reducing the number of HAIs. Westchester Medical Center reported a 70% drop in Intensive Care Unit C. diff (Clostridium difficile) with the Xenex Robots.

Accessibility – Telemedicine continues to grow and bring value to those unable to access quality care, either due to limitation in where they live (rural areas) or as a result of their medical condition (immobility).  Recently, the use of telepresence robots has further improved remote access to care. According to Michael Savoie, of Robohub, in rural hospital settings where a medical specialist is physically unavailable, a robot, such as the RP-VITA (Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine) – jointly developed by InTouch Health and iRobot Corp. – can be deployed to check in on a patient with a physician from elsewhere and similarly, in the home, a nurse can check in with a patient while they recover in a comfortable setting8. RP-VITA is one of the more robust telepresence robots on the market. Savoi states, “It is like few others out there, with special on-board ports to perform diagnostics like ultrasound and stethoscopes to provide critical information in emergency.” He continues, “As the number of humans age 65+ grows throughout the world, many will look to stay at home, rather than in assisted living or nursing homes, and telepresence robots could be an important ingredient in helping them to achieve that independence.”

Many are still skeptical on the use of robotics in healthcare, as they fear that it will take away the “human touch” and reduce the need for a physical doctor.  However, the collaboration and alignment between machine and man is no longer a luxury as it is a necessity if we are to help combat the rising cost of healthcare and allow physicians and medical staff to shift focus back to high value tasks that matter the most – patient care.

What do you think – are robots the future of healthcare?


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Priyal Patel

Priyal Patel is a healthcare industry expert, strategist and senior solutions architect for Perficient. With more than 10 years of healthcare industry experience, Priyal is a trusted advisor to C-level executives, senior managers and team members across clinical, business, and technology functions. Priyal has a proven track record of helping providers and health plans execute enterprise-level transformation to drive business, clinical, financial and operational efficiencies and outcomes.

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