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Robot surgeons and AI nurses: The future of the NHS?

Robotics in healthcare - is this the future?

Would you let a robot perform surgery on you? Or perhaps let one take your blood sample? And would you trust one to remind you when to take your medication? The face of healthcare is changing, and those futuristic ideas are, in some cases, already a reality.

The NHS is one of the industrial world’s most efficient healthcare systems – but its staff are being placed under increasing pressure, with workload and resources being stretched thinner and further. During a time where technology is changing the world as we know it, robotics is providing the answer to improving healthcare efficiency in the UK, reducing that pressure for doctors and improving resources within our healthcare service.

Walking into a hospital in 2019 you might not expect to be greeted and checked in by a humanoid robot just yet, but in 2018 Jeremy Hunt announced a review into the use of Artificial Intelligence in the NHS and robots have already made their big debut.

It is exciting to explore the roles that robots have and are beginning to develop in the UK healthcare system so here is a list of the top 10, starting with Versius....

1. Versius

Versius is a new robot produced by CMR Surgical to complete surgery. It reduces the problem of human error by reducing fatigue and helping increase the concentration of the operating surgeon. Versius allows surgeons to practice laparoscopic surgery, which uses smaller and more accurate incisions than open surgery and allows the patients to have much quicker recovery times and less scarring. It is operated by a surgeon who sits comfortably throughout the procedure and controls the arms from afar using a console with a 3D HD view of what they are doing. CMR Surgical’s website boasts the potential improvement in career length for surgeons due to the comfort and efficiency of the robots use.

Versius Surgery Robot

So far it has been trialed for an array of minimal access procedures and what makes Versius even better is its small size and portable structure, meaning it’s ideal for use in hospitals and can be moved between floors and operating theatres.

Versius wasn’t the first of its kind. It was in 2003 that the first NHS hospitals began using robots for surgery at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in London. In fact, Versius was preceded by the American da Vinci Surgical Robotic System however Versius is smaller, more flexible and has better versatility than the old system.

2. Robot nurses

Robot surgery is the NHS now… What about the NHS in the future?

Perhaps we might copy Japanese hospitals which are already using robots to reduce the pressure on human nurses. They are using three main types of humanoid robots to do this.

The first is Pepper who is being used to schedule appointments, monitor patient’s conditions and find patterns in patient’s vitals. Pepper can also be used to interact with children and reduce anxiety for young patients.

Pepper Robot Nurse

Next is Paro who can comfort shy patients especially those with dementia. Paro can be used to calm patients in a similar way to animal assisted therapy without the notable disadvantages of animal therapy such as fur allergies, food and full-time care for the animal.

Paro Robot Comforting Patients with Dementia

Finally, Dinsow tends to be used for elderly patients who need help to remember to take their medication and, importantly, to combat loneliness which can increase cardiovascular disease in elderly patients and increase the likelihood of other ailments such as elevated blood pressure.

Other Japanese engineers at Riken and Sumitomo Riko Labs have created a robotic bear which can lift and move patients that would otherwise require a carer to do so. They can help disabled and elderly patients to move to and from a wheelchair and even to turn in bed.

Robot Carrying Patients in Hospitals

Robots are even being used to help combat social isolation. This is especially important with the growing problem of an elderly population – in need of people to care for them and keep them company. Genie Connect has been produced in the UK and is currently undergoing trials into its effectiveness in combatting social isolation. The robots can allow video calling to friends and family, remind someone when to take their medication and, with monthly fees, provide a video chat service with a health and wellbeing team. It even connects users to other similar minded users with similar interests – such as crosswords or yoga.

Social Isolation Robot

3. Microscopic Origami robots

Moving away from humanoid robots and onto smaller technical devices which work to repair internal problems in patients, soon we might bump into tiny devices like these.

Ingestible Surgery Robot

This is an ingestible origami robot. It is swallowed as a small capsule which unfolds inside your digestive system. It can then be steered using magnetic fields and move, via a ‘stick-slip’ crawling motion, across the stomach lining to remove accidentally ingested foreign objects or repair wounds.

Similar technologies are already used by the NHS and can come in different forms. They might allow what is called ‘capsule endoscopies’. These fill roles such as travelling to exactly where the medical professional needs to study in the digestive system, taking photos and yielding data for diagnostics. What’s great about them is that they remove the factor of human tremor that usually comes with an endoscopy. Other microscopic robots can do other roles such as delivering radiation to a tumour.

The way in which they make these micro-bots move revolves around tiny metallic helices that stick out the end of microbots. These are directed by magnetic fields through the body, sometimes even through blood vessels, to where they are required.

Currently the University of Sheffield and the Tokyo Institute of Technology are running trials for this tiny origami device, which uses dried pig intestines as its main structural component. It is possible we will see this coming to hospitals in the UK soon.

4. Robotic exoskeletons

1965 was the first development of an exoskeleton and these are the next in the list of robotic devices which have entered the healthcare world. These are robotic devices which surround the legs and lower body and allow movement for paralysed people, or those suffering from spinal cord or brain injuries that are undergoing rehabilitation. The devices work by user input and pre-set movements. In the future there may be even more neural involvement allowing the robots to be fully controlled by the user.

Robot Exoskeletons

The first exoskeletons had chunky heavy legs and big claw-like gloves; they were designed to help industrial workers carry heavy weights. By the end of the 1960’s there were exoskeletons for gait assistance and in 2001 the exoskeleton Lokomat was distributed worldwide.

Lokomat has been advertised as ‘robotic assisted therapy’ allowing therapists to focus on the patient and allow the robot to ease the pressure on weak muscles that require building up.

ReMat is a more recent robotic exoskeleton which provides hip and knee movement to patients with spinal cord injuries. This device allowed Claire Lomas, who has paraplegia, to participate in the London marathon in 2012.

Robot Exoskeleton Marathon Runner

Currently, the problem with exoskeletons is their weight. The University of Salford have developed the “soft continuum actuator” which is a robotic joint, to be part of a robotic exoskeleton, which is made of softer, lighter material and can bend like an elephant trunk. When it encounters resistance in the users body it will still move, but in a different part of the exoskeleton.

This modern technology is slowly creeping into the NHS rehabilitation services. University Hospital Birmingham’s NHS Foundation Trust’s Healthcare Technology Co-operative worked with patients and staff at Moseley Hall Hospital in Birmingham. They used the REX robotic limb support, which can help and support the patient standing up and walking and was used for stroke patient rehabilitation.

5. Robot diagnostics

Perhaps a slightly less exciting concept than robotic exoskeletons, but equally as useful, is the use of robots to complete the data work that humans have had to do before. Robots seem to be much better at scanning thousands of medical documents and data and extracting the patients who have increased risk of problems such as heart disease or cancer.

A team at New York University have developed a robot to do this... and so far it has never been wrong. Should this level of accuracy continue, it might take over diagnostics in the NHS too

6. Porter droids

More mundane jobs are being filled in by robots already; they are being used to transfer laundry and medical supplies around hospitals.

Robot Porter in Hospitals

These robots are called automated guided vehicles and in 2015 Scotland’s new South Glasgow university hospital spent £1.3 million on this project.

The robots can detect if there is a surrounding risk, in the absence of which they can speed down hospital corridors, saving the NHS valuable time. They even turn themselves into a charger point if they are running low.

The robots can be found in many other NHS hospitals in the UK including in the Brunel building at Southmead Hospital, Bristol. Here, they only operate in staff areas along virtual guided paths which the robots can sense due to their in-printed map.

7. Disinfectant robots

Queen’s Hospital in Romford, London has been the first NHS hospital to introduce disinfectant robots. Two machines produced by Xenex use UV to disinfect the hospitals. This works by penetrating the cell walls of bacteria, bacterial spores and viruses, damaging their DNA. They’ve been proven to be effective in 2200 lab samples. This method of maintaining hygiene will save NHS workers huge amounts of precious time that can be directed elsewhere to provide more care for more patients.

The robots at Queen’s Hospital are called Xenex Germ-Zapping Robots but to the NHS workers there, they’re known as Rosie and Mavis. The best thing about them is that they don’t require disinfectant or chemicals and they don’t even require contact with the surfaces.


8. Antibiotic Nano-robots

Antibiotic Nano Robots

Next are some extremely interesting robots that can actually clear a bacterial infection from a patient’s blood - a new answer to antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is where a bacterium develops or acquires a mutation which changes their DNA and renders antibiotics useless when used to combat the infection. This might be because the bacterium produces an antidote to chemically alter the antibiotic or because it reduces the ability for the antibiotic to penetrate the bacteria.

As a result of this, scientists are finding fewer and fewer options of antibiotic treatment and subsequently a robotic method to clear bacterial infections in the blood of patients could be a revolutionary way to solve this problem.

These tiny nano-robots are made of gold nano-wire covered in an antitoxin, antibacterial membrane. They are controlled using ultrasound from outside the body and they aid the blood’s ability to clear infection.

Currently these robots are still under trial. Some scientists are wondering if a different material such as magnesium would be better and are unsure if the level of gold in the blood might be toxic.

The future

It turns out robots are already part of the National Health Service and are forecasted to play an even more important role in the coming years. Robots are working to improve efficiency, reduce costs and save precious NHS time. Here at Luca Robotics we think robots offer bright future for UK healthcare, but what do you think? Let us know by tweeting us at @LucaRobotics

Guest Blogger: Clara Utley