Safety fears over use of robotics in medical procedures

12th June 2019
Posted By : Alex Lynn
Safety fears over use of robotics in medical procedures

Recent advancements in robotic technology have resulted in significant changes and future implications in several industries, and for people of many walks of life. However, there are few where the impact has proven as pronounced as in the field of medicine. The advent of advanced medical robots is changing - and saving - the lives of people across the globe.

By Scott Jones, General Manager, Northern Connectors

Medical robotic technology, while still in its relative infancy, is making it possible to treat illnesses and health problems in a way that has never been possible before. As technology continues to evolve, the frontier of what can be achieved by medical science will continue to be expanded, and patients will benefit in many ways that are both small-scale and hugely significant.

However, inevitably, any major technological shift is accompanied by concerns about the potential risks it could cause, as well as optimism about the benefits it could deliver. The emergence of robotic-assisted surgery has been no exception to this, with the concept proving both polarising and controversial.

Our recent survey 
In order to gauge public attitudes to the use of robotics in surgical procedures and wider medical practice, Northern Connectors carried out a survey of 570 people. The results indicated that many people harbour ongoing concerns about the reliability of the technology, even though they are aware of the potential advantages it could provide.

The findings revealed that only nine percent of people would prefer to undergo surgery carried out by a robot surgeon compared to a human, while 51% said they would still favour a human surgeon as opposed to a robotic device. In addition, 40% of respondents answered “I don’t know”.

When asked about their views on the main disadvantages of using robotics in medicine, 73% of respondents said the “possibility of malfunction” was the main concern, followed by the “high cost of the machinery” (56%) and a “loss of jobs in the NHS” (41%).

The responses were not all negative - and many people do agree that using robotics in medicine can come with a number of benefits. When asked about the main advantages of using robotics in medical procedures, 64% said the reduced risk of human error, followed by less invasive surgery (57%) and smaller incisions (56%).

When asked to what extent they agreed that the increased use of robotics by medical care providers would improve the standard of patient care, 45% said they “neither agree nor disagree”, 34% said “agree”, eight percent said “disagree” and two percent said “strongly disagree”. Only 11% of respondents strongly agreed that robotics would lead to an improvement in patient care.

Busting the myths surrounding medical robots 
When most people think of medical robots, they are likely to think of surgical procedures. These systems are new enough that their presence in operating rooms may still be regarded with trepidation by many people; however, this is likely to change as their benefits and capabilities become more widely known and established.

It is likely that some people believe that surgical robots are wholly-automated systems operating using AI, but in reality, the majority of modern surgical robots are operated manually by a trained surgeon.

One example of this is the increasingly popular daVinci Surgical System, which combines highly precise remote-operated robotic arms with sophisticated camera equipment, allowing the surgeon to control the arms from a computer console. The daVinci blurs the line between robot and medical tool due to the fact it is always under the full control of the surgeon, and the advancements it has led to are almost beyond belief.

Using the daVinci device, surgical procedures are carried out with just a few tiny incisions and with the utmost precision, leading to faster healing and a reduced risk of infection. Surprisingly, this system has been around for almost two decades, and has continued to become more and more advanced over time.

In future, it may be possible for surgical robots to improve further through the power of machine learning. By connecting to the internet, surgical systems can learn from each other and refine their technique through access to a global database, allowing them to provide assistance to human surgeons in complex and unexpected scenarios, and delivering a standard of care that far exceeds what is possible today.

Wider benefits of robotics 
Certain advances in medical robotic technology are not focused specifically on medical care, but could deliver lifesaving benefits of equal importance. A key example of this is the new generation of disinfection robots, which are set to provide a superior way of helping hospitals to meet exacting standards of hygiene.

The spread of germs and infections represents a significant challenge in healthcare settings, which is why thorough sanitisation methods are required to provide safe care. Manual cleaning methods used by employees are not always enough, which is why the introduction of ultraviolet-powered disinfection robots could represent an important step forward.

These sterilisation systems work simply by emitting powerful UV rays that flood the entire room, moving around to reach even the most sheltered corners and ensuring that all of the bacteria in the area can be neutralised in a matter of minutes. These robots can be used in most hospital facilities, as well as in nursing homes, emergency vehicles and even assisted living and extended care facilities.

Given the current focus on medicine on reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics to prevent the evolution of dangerous superbugs, these devices are likely to represent one of the most important new inventions in healthcare.

Easing public concerns 
The use of robotic systems in surgical and medical applications is becoming more widespread, with ongoing technological advances likely to make this even more common in future. However, the findings of the Northern Connectors survey suggest there is still a long way to go before the public learns to fully trust machinery to carry out work typically performed by humans.

Despite the fact that robots are in many ways seen as more accurate and reliable than human surgeons, people are inevitably worried about putting their lives in the hands of a machine. It is important that steps are taken to alleviate these concerns among patients, who are already likely to be in positions of stress ahead of surgical procedures and treatment.

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