Nanobots that swim in the blood stream, 'service robots' that clean hospitals and now 'surgical robots'. As robots gain more intelligence and versatility, they seem all set to change the face of healthcare.
Recently, surgeons carried out the first ever robotic open-heart operation in Britain. The operation was carried out by a robot named Da Vinci, remote-controlled by a doctor who viewed the procedure through a high-definition camera. The surgery, hailed to be safer than conventional surgery, makes UK the third country in Europe, after Sweden and Finland to perform open-heart surgery using robots.
Da Vinci was also part of an earlier robot team that conducted the world's first all-robotic surgery in Canada. The other team member was McSleepy. While McSleepy administered anesthesia to the patient, DaVinci made the miniscule incisions on the body of the patient.
Robot maker iRobot has already tied up with InTouch Health Inc, a Californian maker of video-enabled robotic devices, to unveil a new telemedicine robot that does the rounds of hospital corridors, remote controlled by a physician.
Named RP-VITA (Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant), this bot is equipped with a video screen that helps patients chat with doctors via videoconferencing, similar to a Skype conversation. The bot, which enables doctors at far-off locations to do virtual checks on patients, also comes loaded with cameras, microphones, 3-D mapping sensors and a stethoscope. RP-VITA is a boon for small hospitals, enabling them to get access to specialists for about $4,000 to $6,000 a month.
Elsewhere, teams of medical researchers are now developing real-world blood-cell-sized 'nanobots' that may soon allow doctors to explore, diagnose, and treat disease inside the human body.
Meanwhile, Japan has found in robots a solution to caring for its aging population. 'The Paro', a touch-sensitive companion robot helps dealing with cognitive diseases. The Japanese are also getting 'nursebots' to help the elderly in managing household chores.
Robots are also increasingly being employed by hospitals to do tasks like carrying clinical waste, delivering food, cleaning theaters and dispensing drugs. A state-of-the-art hospital in Scotland already has a number of 'bots' on its rolls. This has helped the hospital cut costs by £700,000 and reduce the number of dispensing errors. The healthcare sector in the United States, too, is looking at 'service robots' as an answer to the shortage of skilled staff and budget constraints.
The day when a robot doctor will walk into a hospital and greet his patients is not far off!