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Robotics: Changing the Future of Health Care

A look at the industry's use of robotic technology.

Anees Fareed, M.D., Chief Medical Information Officer, Transformation Strategist, Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital; Cerner ITWorks


Ten years ago, when the leadership of a major health care institution where I worked decided to purchase a robot to greet patients and take essential vital signs, there was a sense of unease among the staff. Many could not foresee how robotics would transform the way health care organizations are managed. At the time, the use of robotics in hospitals and health systems was an emerging trend — one with significant expense that could be hard for some organizations to justify.

Today, the view has changed. When we look at how robotics has evolved, the technology has advanced so far that it makes sense now to consider robotic technology for cost savings, waste reduction and improved patient care. Now, when I go to work at Al Jalila Children's Specialty Hospital, I can see its full potential to connect to and make the electronic health record more efficient.

Automation driven by digital health care technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, could heavily contribute to the long-term sustainability and profitability of health care systems. Robots can help improve operational efficiencies by taking over administrative or repetitive clinical tasks, such as monitoring patient vital statistics and logging patient data into the EHR. In these examples, robots not only provide precision in completing these tasks, they also help reduce clinicians' workload, giving them more time to spend with patients.

The implications for the usage of robotics in the future of health care go even further, but there’s one thing that can inhibit the growth of robotics in the health care industry: lack of trust in the technology. But there’s no need for clinicians to shy away from something that could do so much good. Let’s look at a few of the ways robotics can have a positive impact on health care.

"As exciting as these advancements are, robots are still not a replacement for human interaction."

Surgical assistant robots

Surgery is one of the fastest growing fields of robotics in health care. Surgical robots, like the da Vinci® Surgical System that debuted in 2000, are some of the best examples of cutting-edge robotic technology for health care purposes. This technology assists in various surgeries that require small, precise incisions, giving surgeons a greater amount of control over the procedure and — in many cases — helping them work more accurately. Other robots can offer more exact bone cuts with a minimized amount of ablated bone and soft tissue damage, which promotes faster healing. It should be noted that, when it comes to the operating room, robots are meant only to assist — rather than replace — surgeons.

Pharmacy robots

Pharmacists are often overloaded with many repetitive — but meticulous and detailed — tasks, from the time a drug has been prescribed until it's dispensed. Here's where robotics comes in.

Robots can read information sent from hospital information systems and update the dispensing status of prescribed drugs back to the system. A robotic arm can attain the appropriate vial or packet, collect and label the medication. In addition to scanning and using bar codes to verify medication, robots can also package, store and dispense filled prescriptions.

Robots can also assist in the preparation of intravenous (IV) solutions. Based on instructions received from the EHR, a Closed System Transfer Device robot works autonomously in a sealed, sterile compartment to prepare IV admixtures and deliver them in IV bags and syringes.

As exciting as these advancements are, robots are still not a replacement for human interaction. In a pharmacy setting, robotic technology has layers of benefits. In addition to reducing the pharmacist's workload, the robust data mining capabilities of robotic machines can equip pharmacies and health care organizations with valuable insights by measuring and reporting key performance indicators such as dispensing time per prescription and the number of dispensing errors reported each month.

I've witnessed the impact of pharmacy robots firsthand at Al Jalila Children's Specialty Hospital, which was the first hospital in Dubai to use robotics in its outpatient pharmacy. Today, we're working on automating our inpatient pharmacy workflows with pharmacy robotics. Currently prescriptions from physicians are electronically sent from the EHR.Once verified by the pharmacist, the robotic arm will locate, dispense and label the drugs per the instructions from the EHR.

Robotic technology in rehabilitation medicine

Exoskeletons are wearable robotic structures that can help humans with range of motion. They are often used for rehabilitation therapy procedures, such as gait training to help patients with paralysis walk again and limb mobilization and guidance for patients recovering from a stroke.

Patient-specific parameters, like the amount of force used and range of motion, is tracked by these machines and can help customize treatments based on an individual's progress. Some exoskeleton technology also can predict the likelihood of falls by measuring gait and pace length of patients. What does this mean for rehabilitation patients and staff? Not only can robot-assisted therapies facilitate better patient outcomes with a faster recovery, but they also provide a precise way to capture and measure valuable patient data that could impact how rehabilitation therapies are practiced in the future.

Robots in telemedicine

Telemedicine is on the rise. The need for it is driven out of a shortage of health care professionals and the unavailability of specialized care in remote areas. Thanks to robotics, physicians who are hours away from their patients have a way to connect with their patients and track their progress.

Human-sized telerobots feature audio, video and camera technology designed to facilitate patient monitoring, timely communication, specialized patient care and even highquality emergency consultations. Other notable benefits include data tracking and access. Robots enable clinicians to remotely log in, review patient data and communicate with the patient and other care team members. Additionally, these robots can send remote alerts to the care team based on the information they collect.

Mobile logistics robots

In a typical hospital setting, there are many items to be transported daily, including thousands of medication orders, meal orders, linens and pounds of trash. This has health care workers spending valuable time going back and forth across several areas of the hospital.

An autonomous mobile transport robot can be used for many of these tasks, helping to reduce wait times and staff workload. These robots can navigate freely across the hospital using sensors.

Implications for the future of health care

The potential for robotic applications in health care are wide-ranging, and all are predicted to change the way hospitals and health care systems are being managed. Advancements in artificial intelligence, along with predictive analytics, are uplifting robotic technology and making it capable of handling more tasks.

As exciting as these advancements are, robots are still not a replacement for human interaction. Hospital operations are complex and involve uncertainty. Robots are good for performing repetitive tasks and tracking data, but this technology should only be used to make the clinicians' workflow easier so that they may focus on the most critical part of their jobs: caring for patients.

Robotic technology is still evolving. Today, robots are being designed to complement human skill sets, reduce workload and enable professionals to focus on more important activities that have a greater impact on patient care delivery. As this technology advances and becomes more affordable, we can expect more health care institutions to embrace robotics.