Imagine consulting a smartphone app next time you become ill…
Or being operated on by a robot, controlled by a surgeon that’s not even in the same room?
From cell phone apps to advanced medical equipment, automation and robotics will become an asset in the medical field…
For proof, look no further than behind the pharmacy counter.
After six years of training, a pharmacist’s most important job is still counting the right number of the right pills into a bottle. But it’s a routine task done better and faster by robots.
That’s not a bad thing. Surveys show that pharmacists consider their calling to be advising and caring for patients, not counting capsules. Turning pill-counting over to robots makes that a reality for pharmacists.
Since 2011, prescriptions at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco have been filled by mechanical hands. These hands slide along tracks that guide to the appropriate bin, from which it plucks the correct number of pills into a pre-labelled bottle.
After the readied bottles are checked for accuracy by a technician, the prescriptions are shuttled by mobile robots to hospital nursing stations.
The system’s speed, efficiency and accuracy have liberated the hospital’s pharmacists. It used to take four pharmacists to supervise seven technicians to fill prescriptions. Now just two techs fill the machine’s bins. The others techs have been reassigned to tasks needing more human contact, such as gathering patients’ medical histories.
The bots are not only faster than people, but also more accurate. A Houston medical centre reported that its human pharmacists make about five errors in every 100,000 prescriptions they fill. San Francisco’s robots have made none to date.
Of course, humans can make mistakes in entering prescription instructions for the machines to carry out. But the machines themselves never fail to do exactly as they’re told.
Automated pill pickers will allow pharmacists to redefine their place in the medical hierarchy.
In addition to advising patients, pharmacists can serve as mediator between patient and doctor. As apps help patients track their blood pressure, blood sugar and other vital signs, pharmacists can make personal calls to patients, watch for signals of drug reactions, and report early warning signs to doctors.
But it’s not just pharmacists who will benefit from robotics technology. Automation also comes to use when lives are at stake.
For example, the US Army has traded its old stretchers for a piece of equipment called the Life Support for Trauma and Transport, or LSTAT.
The LSTAT is an automated intensive care unit, housed in a six-inch-thick platform. Its sensors can analyse blood and monitor vital signs. It has an oxygen tank and a battery-powered defibrillator. The LSTAT’s octopus-like arm hovering over the patient serves as an EMT’s third hand, sprays antibiotics and antiseptic on wounds, and holds a camera by which a remote physician can examine the patient and know how to prep for surgery.
The surgeon herself doesn’t even have to be in the room with the patient. Now that robotic surgery is becoming common, the surgeon who manipulates the handgrips and joysticks guiding the scalpels and other tools can do so from hundreds of miles away.
The video monitor showing the surgeon the operating field can broadcast to any location.
As a result, world-class surgeons can become available to more people because no one has to travel to reach them. Also, more surgeons can specialise because they can draw clients literally from anywhere in the world.
Automation and artificial intelligence are now helping to create not only new surgeons, but also better ones. Typically, trainee surgeons have to learn on cadavers and by watching their elders. But maintaining supply is expensive, as is time in the operating room.
Now a horde of interactive apps, many aided by 3D virtual reality, allow surgeons-in-training to replace virtual knees, remove virtual cataracts, and perform dozens of kinds of operations before touching flesh. Many of the apps also increase the difficulty of a procedure as a student masters simpler steps.
Studies have shown that young surgeons trained on these apps tend to enter the operating room with better skills than those who’ve spent the same amount of time with cadavers or just watching.
As the ‘Breeding Robots’ trend continues to develop, so will its sophistication in the medical field.
There are virtually no boundaries for the application and usefulness of these new technologies.
For Markets and Money, Australia
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