March 31, 2011

Medical Robots and Medical Robotics

A medical robot is a robot used in the medical sciences. They include, but are not limited to, surgical robots. These are in most telemanipulators, which use the surgeon's actions on one side to control the "effector" on the other side.

Medical robotics is an exciting and relatively new field. Robots can be used in medical facilities to perform mundane tasks like delivering patient specimens and records to various areas of the hospital. They can also be highly specialized and assist in diagnosing and treating patients. While there is still much more work to be done, using robots can enhance medical treatment in terms of both the quality and accessibility of care. Using robots can help reduce human error and bring highly specialized information to remote areas without requiring physicians to travel.


Medical robotics was first experimented with during the 1980s, in the field of urology. Robotic arms were developed and used to resection the prostate. Robotics was used only in a limited capacity, though, as its imaging capability as regards the prostate was of poor quality. Also during the 1980s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-Ames Research Center, began to explore the use of robotics for telemedicine. Telemedicine involves using robots to allow a physician to monitor and treat a patient without being in the patient's physical presence. As advances were made, NASA realized the potential application of telemedicine to battlefields, and devoted large amounts of funding to its development.

From 1989 through 2003, several physicians and scientists developed medical robots to help with many types of surgeries, and the FDA began to approve their use. Advances in robotics are continually being made, as more and more products and techniques are becoming available.

A medical robot is a machine that is controlled by a physician through a computerized console. The console can be in the room with the patient or at an outside location. Consoles have one or several robotic arms that are controlled by the physician to do the actual work on the patient. These arms vary greatly in size and shape, depending on the type of surgery they will perform. For the robot to work properly, the surgeon must spend time inputting information into the robot prior to surgery. In addition, the surgeon must map the individual's body through standard diagnostic tests like X-rays and MRIs, so the robot can navigate through the human body correctly. Upon completion, the surgeon must map the best route for the computer to take.


The goal of using robots in medicine is to provide improved diagnostic abilities, a less invasive and more comfortable experience for the patient, and the ability to do smaller and more precise interventions. Robots are currently used not just for prostate surgery, but for hysterectomies, the removal of fibroids, joint replacements, open-heart surgery and kidney surgeries. They can be used along with MRIs to provide organ biopsies. Since the physician can see images of the patient and control the robot through a computer, she does not need to be in the room, or even at the same location as the patient. This means that a specialist can operate on a patient who is very far away without either of them having to travel. It can also provide a better work environment for the physician by reducing strain and fatigue. Surgeries that last for hours can cause even the best surgeons to experience hand fatigue and tremors, whereas robots are much steadier and smoother.


Along with improved patient care, another aim of making medical robotics mainstream is to cut down on medical costs. However, this is not always the case. Some robotic surgery systems cost more than $1 million to purchase and $100,000 a year or more to maintain. This means that hospitals must evaluate the cost of the machine vs. the cost of traditional care. If robotic surgery cuts down on the trauma and healing time, there is money saved in terms of the number of days the patient stays in the hospital. There is also a reduction in the amount of personnel needed in the operating room during surgery. In contrast, extensive training time is required for physicians to learn to program and operate the machines. Another concern is that there are very few manufacturers of medical robotics. With very little competition, the few manufacturers that exist can set their own prices.


Medical robotics is still a very new idea, and there is much more work to be done. It is still very expensive, which can make it prohibitive for many hospitals and health-care centers. There are also still issues with latency. This refers to the time lapse between the moments when the physician moves the controls and when the robot responds. Also, there is still a chance for human error if the physician incorrectly programs the robot prior to surgery. Computer programs cannot change course during surgery, whereas a human surgeon can make needed adjustments. As surgeons become more familiar with using robots for surgery, and as more companies provide medical robots, there may come a day when robots are used in almost every hospital. However, this is still far off in the future.

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