When Will a Robot Replace Your Surgeon?

In the Hallway or the Operating Room, Automation Will Soon Be an Everyday Part of the Hospital

October 2, 2014

Healthcare Strategist, NBBJ


If any industry is ripe for a rapid robotic evolution it’s healthcare. It’s a data-rich environment, filled with a lot of simple, repetitive tasks on the one hand, and many finely-skilled tasks that are carried out intermittently on the other. What are robots good at? Doing one function millions and millions of times with absolute precision, or doing very precise, complex procedures occasionally.

On the simple side, imagine small swarm robots cleaning your healthcare facility. CNET recently reported on Termes, “a collective system of autonomous robots that can build complex, three-dimensional structures such as towers, castles, and pyramids without any need for central command or dedicated roles.” Robots like these can easily be modified to effectively clean healthcare spaces and equipment that need a high degree of disinfection. They could get into the nooks and crannies that human-based systems cannot.

Imagine a swarm of them divided up into special purposes. Some have arms especially designed for tiny crevices, some have little vacuums, some have cleaning fluid and scrubbers, others have driers, and some have infrared radiation or one of many other features. A swarm of hundreds could clean a room and make a bed faster and better.

Now imagine another swarm of them in the room where you clean your IV poles and pumps. The pumps move into a chamber and the special purpose swarm robots go to work. And because the poles will also be robotic, they will transport themselves to a clean room while they await orders for their next assignment.

Before you get too antsy (pun intended) about seeing robot swarms throughout your hospital, this will all happen behind the scenes. Facilities will be redesigned to include swarm ductwork that brings these devices to rooms unseen by staff, patients and visitors. When a room is ready to be cleaned, a small door will open in a back wall; in they come and out they go, cleaning the ducts along the way.

Robots will not be limited to these tasks. The necessary precursors to autonomous surgery are in many operating rooms now. Computer-assisted orthopedic surgery is not unusual these days, and the systems use a variety of image mapping to guide robotic instruments. And while da Vinci remains somewhat controversial, the machine certainly has the ability to move from human-operated to autonomous. Going one step further, NASA is developing a surgery system that will be operated by astronauts in space. It’s targeted for emergency use but you can see how this will advance technology here on earth.

It won’t take much for these systems to go from semi-autonomous to autonomous and it will happen in increments. First the “surgbot” will do openings and closings by itself, then some internal suturing, and maybe an excision here and there. As the technology advances the bot will take on more and more. And because it is more precise and operates at microscopic detail, our ability to fix more things will increase.

A robot’s learning curve is almost immediate. Program the machine once, test it thoroughly, and off it goes, whether it is building or driving your car, vacuuming your rug, drawing and analyzing blood, cleaning and disinfecting an OR, preparing and delivering a patient’s food, or operating on a patient without remote guidance. Healthcare will be profoundly changed as a result — it could even pose a solution to the physician and staff shortages that presumably will result from Baby Boomers entering old age. Only our imagination limits the potential.

Image courtesy of Eric Schmuttenmaer/Flickr.

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