Chris Netherton, M.D.

A new era for medical robotics

While medical robotics is not new, there are signs that its use could expand very rapidly over the next ten years.

For nearly 20 years, an American company called Intuitive Surgical has been producing a device called Da Vinci which has been used to assist surgeons in many intricate procedures, including operations on hearts, kidneys and other organs. It features a 3D vision system to give a clear view inside the patient’s body, while the robot arms give greater rotation and flexibility than the human wrist. The system translates the surgeon’s hand movements into smaller, more precise movements inside the patient’s body. As a result, complex and delicate operations can be carried out with fewer, smaller incisions. The company claims that this system has already been used on over three million patients.

As the capabilities of this technology increase and the production of these types of machines gets more cost effective, new players are entering the market and aiming to widen the use of medical robotics.

Researchers at Bristol University are developing a system that can be used to repair complex joint fractures, using small robotic tools which result in less invasive surgery. An Italian company called Medical Microinstruments is working on a medical robotic system that can be used for reconstructive microsurgery, and uses tiny robotic arms which are only 3mm wide at their narrowest point. Freehand is a robotic system which is specifically designed to hold and manipulate a camera during keyhole surgery procedures, in order to give a rock-steady view of the operating area. Cambridge Medical Robotics is planning to launch a surgical robotic system called Versius, with a set of independent, highly flexible arms which can be arranged at different points around the operating table, and can be deployed across multiple operating theatres rather than one fixed location.

It is important to recognise that these technologies are not designed to replace the skills of the surgeon, but to augment them. The surgeon remains in complete control of the system at all times, but the robotics can enable very delicate and hazardous procedures to be carried out with greater precision.

Used wisely, there is great potential for medical robotics to reduce the time spent in surgery and make procedures safer and more accurate, while also speeding up recovery times for patients.

These systems can be made even more powerful when they are linked together and use the capabilities offered by machine learning and AI. A number of companies are investigating the possibility of connecting all their machines via the internet, so that they would record data from every procedure that they carry out which can then be analysed and used to improve their effectiveness.

And, as if we needed any reminder about the power of robotics and AI, news has emerged from China in the past month that a robot has become the first in the world to pass a medical licensing examination – and has passed with flying colours. Xiaoyi, an AI-powered robot which was invented in China scored 456 in the test, which exceeded the required pass mark by 96 points. With its huge and growing population and the increasing demands being placed on its healthcare system, China is investing heavily in developing new medical robotics and AI systems.

At Microtest, we are driven by innovation and by the desire to use technology to continually improve patient care. So it is always inspiring to see the work that is being done in other areas of healthcare and the way in which creative minds like these are tackling the challenge of helping our medical professionals to work smarter, not harder.

I believe that the software solutions that Microtest provides, such as Electronic Patient Records, will one day be directly linked to new technologies like medical robotics and will provide much of the vital data they need to in order to perform effectively.

There is much work still to be done to refine these new medical robotics systems and to find their most appropriate uses – and they may take some time to gain acceptance from the general public. But the innovation that is happening in this field and the speed at which it is developing is truly impressive.