Posted by: robotnews | March 14, 2006

RoboDoc is getting cheaper… and may soon take house calls

By: U0204550 Wong Liang Mian

Visualize this. You were in a severe car accident while taking a vacation in the countryside. Your internal organs were traumatized and you were admitted into the nearest medical establishment. Unfortunately, it’s just a small clinic serving mostly outpatient services, with no expertise in ER trauma. Fortunately, they have a RoboDoc, a surgical robot which is controlled by consultingdoctors over the internet to perform the simple surgeries required by the clinic. Immediately, a call was made to get the next available trauma surgeon to synchronize with the RoboDoc. The operation was carried out. Your life was saved. The above scenario may sound far fetch, but it could soon become a reality.

Medical robotics has been in the limelight in the past half a decade. They are not true robots, being unable to perform tasks autonomously. Rather, they are tools which magnify the surgeon’s abilities by improving dexterity and accuracy while at the same time, make the procedures safer. In fact, the first medical robot (Intuitive Surgical’s Da Vinci Systems) has been approved and in use in the USA since July 2000. [1]

Traditionally, there are four hurdles which impeded the tele-surgery described in the opening passage. These are high cost, poor portability, inability to palpate and limitations to communications. The Da Vinci Systems cost about $1 millions each. The high cost makes it prohibitive to smaller medical establishments as well as prevents widespread implementation of the standard. The current systems are also large and complex, requiring a large operating room as well as a long setup time, which makes impromptu usage of the machine impractical [2]

Encouragingly, a mechanical engineering professor Dr. William Peine from Purdue University is collaborating with a group of doctors in an effort to develop cheaper, less complex, more portable and more versatile medical robots[3] According to his explanation, the current medical robots available are complex to accommodate the most difficult procedures. However, the majority of surgical procedures do not require such complexity and hence there is a need for a less complex robot that can handle most surgeries. Furthermore, by reducing the complexity, the size and cost of the robot can be reduced too. Setup times would also be reduced, allowing for impromptu use of the robot as required. The estimated cost of the developed robot is only one quarter of the existing systems.

As mentioned previous, two other hurdles in implementing tele-surgery would be inability to palpate and limitations to communications. One limitation of the minimally invasive surgery utilized by robots would be that the doctor would be unable to touch the patient’s tissue and use his sense of touch to diagnose the situation (palpation). [4] This prevents doctors from being willing to do tele-surgery. On another note, there is a reason why at present, the doctors situated themselves close to the medical robot. It is because the doctors can’t afford any delay in communications that might resulted in the robot lagging during the operation. [5]

Currently, to resolve the issues of robots being unable to convey the sense of touch, Dr Peine is planning to incorporate tactile sensors which would generate a color coded computer map to inform the surgeon of the textures the robot is “feeling”.

As for the question of communications, Imperial College London has a trial program of using robots to cover ward rounds.[6] They have used robots to enable busy surgeons to give their patients post surgery care despite not being with them physically. Using a wireless network within the hospital, these robots have video cameras for the surgeon to do a visual inspection of the operation wounds. Various other medical instruments such as pressure meters and thermometers also allow the surgeon to make proper medical judgments. Although this does not resolve the issue of the communications lag, it does show that a framework to use robots as mobile representatives of the doctors is being developed and ready to be advanced into the next stage once reliable internet communications can be established.

Given the advances in wireless technology and the increasing bandwidth of the internet, it is not hard to imagine the medical robots being developed by Dr Peine merging with the rudimentary observation robots currently used by the Imperial College of London. How far fetch does RoboDoc seem to be now?

[1], [5] http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/robotic-surgery1.htm

[2], [4] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/03/060306113436.htm

[3] http://www.purdue.edu/

[6] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=24650

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Responses

  1. Hmm perhaps next time robots can take over the roles of doctors….

  2. The RoboDoc is surely a very useful invention and allows the expertise of well-qualified/regarded doctors to be shared across geographical regions. But what happens if during an operation, the robot makes an error that leads to the death of a patient. Is it the Doctor’s fault? Or will blame fall back on the robot designer? How clear will the issue of blame be?

    Also, one of the reason why robots in medical applications cannot be totally autonomous in nature is because certain decisions still need to be made by a human doctor. So I guess the Doctor’s job is still safe for now! =0

  3. This post has been removed by the author.

  4. U0205231 Lim Xiaoping

    Acceptance of patients to diagnosis or treatment by a robot may also be an important factor in the widespread usage of robotic doctors. An interesting study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, was carried out to find out if a patient’s doctor is not physically available will the patient be more willing to communicate with his doctor through an interactive robot or see a subsitute doctor. Results of the study has showed that they actually prefer the robot to humans they don’t know.

    However, the role of the robot in this case is still largely assistive. It is radically different if the human doctor is taken out of the process and diagnosis is carried out autonomously by the robot. As mentioned in the article, “The aim of the technology isn’t to replace human doctors, but to make it more convenient for doctors to check in with their patients, and for patients to get quick access to personal physicians who aren’t at the hospital.”Hence, i agree too that jobs of doctor are still quite safe yet.

    Link

  5. This post has been removed by the author.

  6. u0300654 Li Junbin

    This is an impressive breakthrough for robotic industry. If the RoboDoc is able to take off, the cost of visiting a GP or even a specialist will be lower. This is in line with the public and governement interest because of the aging population.

    However, it can be seen that more has to be done in order for RoboDoc to independently conduct surgery for the patient, which is the dream to realize in the near future.

  7. U0204570 Tang Shao Qiang

    Current medical robots mostly play an assistive role to the doctor and not replace them fully. I think this will and should continue to be the future trend as it is unacceptable on humane terms for even a single death or injury to occur under the total influence of an unsupervised machine that is involved in such a sensitive process as medical treatment. Improvements are definitely required to ensure high level of stability and reliability of the robots. Faster communication networks might one day make long distance operations more reliable, but there should still be several surgeons supervising the robot on the spot to remedy any unexpected machine failures.


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