Get Ready! Here Come the Robot Doctors

Icy Hands, No Chitchat, and a Steely Bedside Manner

Have you heard about the medical robotics revolution and wondered how it might affect you? When I read that the medical robotics industry is set to pass the $7 billion mark by 2020, I started to ask myself whether I’d ever be able to see a human doctor again.

Then there was a story about a Belgian hospital where all reception duties are done by “robot nurses” that never take a day off, don’t ask for raises, and are polite to the point of madness. Experimental micro-bots are able to swim inside the human body and deliver drugs exactly where they’re needed, with fewer chances of side-effects and wasted medicine. What’s happening in the world of medicine? Are humans being pushed out, and if so, is that a good or bad thing?

Figure 1: Robotic surgery

 

A quick look at dozens of recent news pieces on the medical robotics industry got me to thinking about how this new trend might directly affect my own medical treatment. Hospitals are already pretty sterile places, but does that mean robots will make things better?

Researching this fascinating new field put my mind at ease but did raise a whole new set of questions about the future of health care and the possible dangers of “robot doctors.” Here’s what I found out.

Robo-Factoids: The Main Pros and Cons in the Bot Debate

You  don’t have to do much digging to come up with what the experts in this field say are advantages of robot surgery and/or medical robots in general. Here are some that you might intuitively know, and a few I’ll bet you never heard or even considered.

The Good:

Studies have shown that when patients had robotic surgery done, they recover about 30 percent faster than if they have conventional surgery. On top of the quicker recovery time, Japanese patients who opted for robotic surgery were able to get back to their regular jobs (or normal daily activities if they were retired from work) about 50 percent faster than for patients who underwent conventional surgery (by a human doctor).

Human surgeons usually prefer to work in a “robot-assisted” operating room because the visibility “inside” the patient is much clearer (via a high-resolution monitor that provides ample lighting and the ability to magnify at all angles) and the surgeon’s ability to control the cutting edge and/or surgical tool is much better.

One of the most common positive comments human surgeons offer about robot-assisted surgery is unusually non-technical: “I enjoyed being able to sit during the surgery.” Having tired legs and back muscles is a very common complaint among almost all medical surgeons. Robots eliminate the need for humans to stand.

A major advantage to robot-assisted surgery is the lack of mistakes. Human hands sometimes tire, shake and make a wrong incision due to “human error.” Robots don’t have this problem, unless the human surgeon directing the device operates the machine incorrectly.

But, because the human surgeon is sitting down, and is able to use a joy-stick device to move, say, a scalpel, there is no problem with fatigue or shaky hands. The instrument goes exactly where the doctor directs it to go.

When patients are informed of these advantages by the doctor before surgery begins, they tend to feel much more at ease during the procedure. Thus, happier, calmer patients and more rested, less accident-prone surgeons are just two of the big advantages of robotic surgery.

These advantages might be why so many Japanese patients opt for robotic surgery and procedures when they can afford them. Japan has a national health insurance plan but for “extras” like robotic surgery, hospitals are able to charge an additional fee; and it is often quite a hefty one. But we’ll discuss that point later on in the “disadvantages of robotic surgery” section.

Disadvantages:

We already alluded to the main disadvantage above. It is cost. Because the robotic units cost so much, and because it is so costly and time-consuming to train them, each patient pays an average of $1,800 extra for robotic surgery compared to human surgery with no robot assistant. Keep in mind that the robotic device itself, before taking into account the cost of training, programming and testing (which is considerable) is about $1.4 million, on average.

Also note that the additional cost of robotic surgery is also an average. Generally speaking, the more complicated the procedure, the higher the surcharge for robotic-assistance. For procedures like heart and lung operations, of course, the added fee will be much more than $1,800, and may even exceed $10,000.

Figure 2: Some robot doctors enjoy reading during their lunch hour

One huge disadvantage, often noted by surgeons, is that the human doctors must spend many hours learning how to operate the robotic equipment. This is not a “weekend seminar” type of training, but typically calls for at least 100 hours of intensive, instructor-led training sessions that can be highly demanding in terms of mental concentration and difficulty level.

Surgical internships are already quite long. It is not unheard of for a specialized surgeon to be in training for more than 5 years. The added amount of time that robotics training would add to that might be in the range of an entire year for a surgeon who wants to be adept on all equipment in a specific area or field of study.

Later, when equipment is updated or modified, perhaps a new round of training will be needed. Medical surgeons already have extremely demanding and tight schedules, so new equipment training could put a huge strain on an already-overloaded work calendar.

There is already competition among surgeons and between hospitals to acquire the latest robotic equipment and learn how to use it. This fact is not necessarily a “disadvantage” because competition can be a good thing in the long-run, but some medical insiders say that the “robotics craze” has some hospitals and doctors scurrying to acquire new equipment that they don’t even know if they’ll need, and to “borrow” money from other parts of strapped budgets to pay for high-end surgical robots. This situation has led to a kind of bureaucratic chaos at some hospitals.

So, the robot revolution is neither all good nor all bad, but like everything else is a mixed bag. From the patient point of view, the trend toward robotic medicine might not really be fully seen for another decade, according to one expert, who says that routine tasks like billing and reception are more open to computerized and/or robotic changes during the next 10 years.

The bottom line: Robotics won’t be an “overnight” change in the medical field, but it is growing at a steady rate, and already has made a strong foothold in the area of surgical procedures.

Things like routine medical exams, visits to the emergency room, labor/delivery, diagnostics, physical therapy, neurological exams and of course psychiatry are expected to remain relatively untouched by the robotics movement for the next few years at least.

Robot Doctors as Investments

Some on Wall Street are hailing the trend toward medical robots and looking at it as a way to diversify and strengthen portfolios. At least a dozen major robotics manufacturers are already heavily invested in this new field, and early returns are promising.

Figure 3: Current global leaders in the medical robotics market

While some more cautious investors are wary of diving into the robotics sector, most analysts believe robotics (of all kinds, not just medical) might be the “next big thing” in the investment community during the upcoming decade.

Some are already scrambling to get in on the ground floor, so to speak, as brokers at several major firms say one of the most common queries from clients is about robotics and the potential of the sector.

There’s a lot of interest out there about robotics as an investment vehicle, and the growth of medical robotics as a sub-category only bolsters the strength of this new form of economic growth.

Mini-bots that do house-cleaning, manufacturing robots that build things, and now medical robots that operate on human patients are one of the fastest-growing segments of the investment world. Not a day goes by that the major financial publications don’t run a piece on robotics.

 

Robot Resources: Videos, Links, Books for More Info

The following resources include videos, books and websites that offer additional information. Simply click on the hyperlinked resource title and you’ll be able to go directly to a live link for that particular item. Most book listings are from major online retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others. All video links are sources from YouTube. Website links for the most part are informational, like WebMD, Wikipedia, and other authoritative business, health and medical resources.

Six Degrees of Operation: 6 Medical Robots at Work

Robot enthusiasts will flip their metallic lids over this awesome video of real-life robot “doctors” doing what they were hired to do. You’ll see “micro-bots” that are as big as a mosquito, giant machine-like robots doing serious surgery, and the most amazing little humanoids sewing up a wound with uh, robotic precision.

For anyone who doubts that the robot revolution is in full gear (pun intended), this video will make a believer out of you. It’s really surprising to learn that so many different companies have already been battling it out in this industry for more than two decades.

Today’s robots are much more expensive than human doctors, but experts say that will change quickly once more are put into operation. The 3-minute clip will likely change the way you view medical robotics.

Video: Med-bot Stitches a Grape

The “stitching a grape” robot video is one that is “making the rounds” in first-year medical school classes so future MDs can see how precise and accurate their droid counterparts can be. Maybe the professors use the film as an incentive to make human med students study harder. Who knows?

The fact remains that the delicate little operation at hand is a true wonder of modern science. There are similar videos that use actual human subjects in the “stitching” demo, but the grape isn’t as messy, or as bloody as the other clips.

Cars are a Cinch: Robots Work Silently on Assembly Line

Before robots learned to operate on human beings, they learned their craft in the automotive industry, primarily in Japan. This Kawasaki robot assembly line can build entire cars in about 2 hours, with no lunch breaks, strikes, or mistakes.

Incredibly, there are even a few factories outside Tokyo where robots manufacture other robots. Nearly all these mechanized fellows end up on auto assembly lines, but nowadays, many are headed to the security industry, medical facilities, and law enforcement careers.

Robots Everywhere: Cool Uses on Display at Japan Expo

This short video is from a trade fair in Tokyo where a state-of-the-art “manufacturing bot” was on display. Some of Toyota and Honda’s vehicle factories now use robot assemblers exclusively, with only one or two humans per facility as overseers.

Other uses for robots, besides in the auto and medical industry, are beginning to liven up the consumer retail market. As shown in the clip, there are house-cleaning bots, security assistants, law enforcement aides, and an endless array of “entertainment” droids that are just now making a dent in the global retail economy.

Where it will all stop, if it ever stops, is anyone’s guess.

Best Med-Bot Book for Kids

Aimed at school-age children, this clever little book is all about medical robots that save lives, prevent infection, and “give shots” painlessly (that’s a sure way to get any kid’s attention!). Apparently, this book is one way to get little Jimmy or little Susie ready for that inevitable trip to the doctor when they’ll be checked-in by a droid, examined by a “bear doc” and entertained by a singing “fun-bot” in the lobby while they wait.

On the serious side, this informative entry is a pleasure for kids to read and will make them want to read more about robotics (if that’s a good thing, we aren’t sure), and possibly supplant the current dinosaur-mania that has taken over the entire universe of children’s publishing. Maybe the next billion-selling kids book will be about a robot dinosaur that saves the planet from over-commercialized children’s books).

How We Got Here: The History of Medical Robotics

Don’t let the snoozer title fool you. This is interesting reading. It’s not all about medical robots though. There is plenty of background, beginning with “witch doctors” and bringing us right up to today’s hyper-efficient robo-docs that are able to slice, dice, suture and diagnose at the speed of a locomotive.

The nice thing about “How We Got Here” is that it’s one of the few of many robotics books that traces the history of the science, and actually discusses what life was like long before the technological revolution. The book offers enough context so that we’re able to see just how we did arrive at this point in history, where “human imitators” are able to do many jobs better than their creators.

“Eye, Robot”: Med-bot Does Tricky Eye Surgery

This is an instant video classic that effectively shows off some of the best med-bot techniques of the modern era. If you are squeamish about eyeballs and surgery and stuff like that, put this one on the “maybe later” list.

But if you want to see a surgical robot in action, then this is one of the better clips available. British doctors use a robot to remove a tiny foreign membrane from a patient’s eye. Afterward, the patient is able to see his watch, and many other things, for the first time. He describes the surgery as a “fairy tale.”

Brave, Scary New World: State of the Art Med-bots

Written to keep paranoid people awake at night, this is the true story of modern-day high-tech medical robots, warts and all. We get an overview of the fascinating industry, which now cranks out thousands of medical robots every day, some of which are small enough to travel through the human bloodstream.

Once a subject of a gripping sci-fi movie called Fantastic Voyage, the technology has come full circle; these miniature med-bots will likely be streaming through your veins by the mid-2020s.

The author has much to say about the future of robotics, which is where the book really delivers the goods. As an expert in the field, with years of experience behind him, Dr. Forsythe is able to make several very logical predictions about where all the robotic science is taking the medical profession and humanity in general.

Quick Info on Medical Robots: Types, Uses, Cost

Here is a useful information link that lists the various kinds of robots on the market today, what they do, how they are manufactured, and how to learn more about them.

For anyone who is interested in learning more about this fast-growing industry, which has massive implications for the future, this short data list is an ideal starting point.

The Dark Side: Why Some Hospitals Won’t Use Med-bots

There is much controversy about the current robotics industry. In fact, the field is now facing some of its most challenging questions. There is a school of thought that things have already gone too far, and this book delineates that position.

Some hospitals, as the video clip explains, refuse to use robotic surgery altogether; some allow robots to do very limited tasks but none that border on actual medical treatment or surgery.

Is robotics a healthy trend for the medical community? There are more naysayers than you would suspect, as some in the doctoring business see lots of potential trouble on the horizon. What happens when a machine malfunctions and damages or kills a patient undergoing routine surgery? What will become of human doctors who get replaced by robots? These and many similar questions are the stuff of medical conferences and scholarly papers. They’re also the starting point for what might turn out to be one of the most brutal battles the world of science has ever witnessed: the robot wars, indeed.

 

Myths and Facts about Medical Robots

There’s a lot of bunk out there about robots in general and medical robots in particular. Many of these half-truths, urban legends and wiseacre factoids have been floating around since the advent of robotics in the late 1950s. Perhaps you heard some of them when you were a child. If you know of one that we missed, leave it in the comment section below, or drop it on our Facebook page when you visit. Here are some of the more common robot myths, many of which pertain to medical bots.

Myth: Robots will eliminate jobs and replace all human workers.

Fact: So far, this biggest and scariest of all robot myths has not panned out. At Tesla Motors, for example, robots have been brought in to do dangerous tasks that often lead to injury when humans do them. Most robot work crews have several human overseers, and when robots do “take” a human job, the human is moved to another area of the company where their thinking and planning skills are more needed. So far, there have been no major layoffs at any U.S. firm due to robotics. At least not yet there haven’t been.

Myth: Robots will soon replace all doctors.

Fact: This is one of the whoppers that many people fall for when they first see a robotic device doing any medical task. Yes, robots are already involved in many forms of medical treatment, but just as a reality check, there is still a dire shortage of doctors and nurses in most major U.S. markets, even where robots are commonplace.

It appears that robots in the medical community are brought in as something akin to high-level assistants that are capable to doing a select group of specialized tasks, almost all of which require human oversight.  So, no, there has not been any “replacement” effect of robots in the medical field.

Myth: Robotic surgery is cheaper, safer and faster than human-led surgery.

Fact: Wrong on all counts.  The truth is that medical robots are quite expensive and are almost all employed in experimental tasks with educational aims. Even in Japan, where medical robotics is at the cutting edge, hospitals that offer robotic surgery charge a much higher fee for it than for human-led surgical techniques. There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but the primary one is cost of the robotic device and the high price of programming it to do the tasks.

Myth: Robots are easy to use and program.

Fact: Robots, especially medical ones, call for huge amounts of time for programming, and even more for on-site testing. Unlike in the automotive or manufacturing industry, surgical robotics allows no room for error, which means programming time and expense is excessive in most cases.

While some experts say that the “robotics market” for med-bots will grow to possibly more than $10 billion by 2025, your next doctor visit will likely not be with a robot.

Myth: Robots are dangerous for medical use and will make injury and accidental death commonplace.

Fact: So far, after millions of hours of medical robotic activities, there have been no serious injuries to patients, operators or programmers. Of course, in fields like the auto industry, the danger of heavy machinery is well known and has always been a danger to some workers who spend their lives near large mechanical devices. Robots are, in a way, very specialized types of heavy equipment, so there is a real possibility that there could be injuries and deaths associated with their use. But that danger is not because they are robots “with minds of their own,” but rather because they are pieces of complicated heavy equipment.

Myth: Robots will replace humans within a generation.

Fact: Some social scientists view robots as a high-tech version of automated farm equipment and large tractors. Yes, over a period of about 50 years, mechanized farm equipment replaced the rural economy and led to vast urbanization of cities all over the world. But there are still farms and farmers. There are still people, many more people in fact. The economy, and society, shifted to accommodate the more efficient farming methods that were introduced by tractors and similar machines.

 

From Star Wars to Scar Wars: Dr. Robot is Here to Stay

Robotics manufacturing has been going on for almost three decades and is growing each year, with no stopping point in sight. Oddly, when I first started reading about medical robotics, I thought of it as a “new” thing, but quickly learned that on the non-retail level, this is a revolution that has been going on for a very long time.

Robots are here to stay and will soon be playing a major role in the retail sector, as consumers scoop them up for household tasks like cleaning, security monitoring, safety functions, and dozens more things. One of the positive aspects of the retail surge will be investment opportunities for those who want to diversify portfolios and take advantage of this fast-growing sector.

Like cell phones and computers before them, robots will spend about 5 years in a build-up phase before they virtually inundate our daily lives. It’s not just a medical robotics era we’re in the midst of. The late 2010s and early 2020 will likely go down in history as the “age of the robots.”

Some experts think the “second wave” of the robotics revolution will be miniaturization, much as was the case with phones and computers. Tiny medical bots are already, on an experimental basis, able to travel through human veins and diagnose disease, mend bond fractures, and clean away foreign debris in the body.

Yes, the robot doctors are here, but once they’re fully in place, there may be no turning back. Perhaps some future politician will promise, “If you like your robot doctor, you can keep your robot doctor.” Keep in mind that one of the friendliest and beloved of all robots in pop culture is C-3PO from the Star Wars film series.

A Comic-Con festival survey showed C-3PO garnering more than 40 percent of the overall vote, which was a full 20 percent more than any other robot on the list earned. It was a robotic landslide! The lesson here: before we all bow down to the benign and helpful C-3PO as the ultimate robot pal to human, let’s not forget who conceived of and built him. That’s right, none other than the one who would become Darth Vader, evil lord of the Empire. In other words, never turn your back on a sweet-talking robot.

Please note: The information presented above should not be taken as “investment advice” or any type of inducement to purchase specific securities. It is merely our take on the current state of the medical robotics market and is intended purely for informational purposes.

In addition, we aren’t equipped to offer medical advice, so if you have a concern about your state of health, be sure to speak with a physician or other medical professional. This article is not intended to be any kind of official medical guidance.

However, we do value your comments and opinions, so please leave some feedback in the space below. Or, visit our Facebook page and contribute a comment or two. We always enjoy hearing from our readers and look forward to hearing what you have to say.

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