Using robotics and AI in medicine during pandemic and beyond

Domo arigato, Dr. Roboto!

Perhaps, this could be the phrase we keep hearing very often in the not-too-distant future. After all, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming increasingly popular tools as lifesavers for surgeries and other medical applications during the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health crises.

Though people may view robotic and robotic-assisted surgeries as future technologies that resemble occurrences in science fiction movies, the procedures have been around for decades. Some of the ideas have been around for even centuries.

As far back as 1987, doctors were using surgical robots to perform laparoscopic cholecystectomies. While it may not have a name that rolls off the tongue, a cholecystectomy is a procedure that removes the gallbladder. Laparoscopic is a standard description of many types of procedures. During a laparoscopy, a doctor uses a fiber-optic instrument to pierce the wall of the abdomen.

While laparoscopic procedures are invasive, they’re less intrusive than other surgeries, leading to their designation as minimally invasive procedures. For example, women with laparoscopic hysterectomies typically have multiple small incisions in their abdomen, instead of one crossing the length of it. Smaller incisions can mean less scarring and shorter recovery times.

Interestingly, doctors sometimes use a technology called the da Vinci surgical system to perform laparoscopic hysterectomies. Artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) designed and built an early mechanical human-robot and animals. Today, he’s still renowned for his accurate, science-based anatomical drawings. It’s fitting, then, that robots that address human anatomy and explore scientific principles bear da Vinci’s name.

How does medicine use robots in heart procedures?

Of course, doctors use robotics for more than laparoscopies.

People who have problems with alcohol and blood pressure may develop blocked arteries. To unblock these arteries, doctors perform angioplasties, which are procedures that insert and inflate tiny balloons into the blood vessels.

After angioplasties, doctors often insert stents to keep the arteries open. One such stent procedure is commonly known as a robotic PCI. (It’s a short way to say the name of another procedure that can be quite a mouthful: robotic-assisted percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) heart stent placement). During robotic PCIs, cardiologists control robots to manipulate wires inside tubes that lead to their patients’ hearts. The doctors use robotic PCI controls to steer these wires through blocked areas and to the right arteries.

Deliver stents? The PCI robot can do that. Fix blocked areas? The robot can also do that. Robots allow doctors to perform accurate, precise work.

How does medicine use AI?

Doctors aren’t the only ones using robots for surgery to advance the boundaries of medicine even further. Researchers created the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) to perform intestinal surgery on a pig in 2016.

But doctors didn’t control this robotic surgeon. “STAR was controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, and received input from an array of visual and haptic sensors,” according to scholars discussing the operation in a 2019 issue of the Annals of Surgery.

Since it’s artificial, AI-conducted surgery may provide benefits over human-conducted operation because AI surgery may

  • Reduce mistakes and minimize the risk of human error.
  • Occur in places with limited health care resources, such as war zones or space stations.
  • Have access to areas in the body that are difficult to reach.
  • Be more available to higher numbers of people.

Such surgeries may make health care more accessible.

How do doctors incorporate AI in their work?

Technologies such as AI can also make assistance more accessible. It can provide a wealth of medical knowledge at the tip of a doctor’s tongue.

Before operations, surgeons can ask voice agents about the procedures and the patients who will be receiving them. The voice agents can quickly retrieve information from vast medical databases, which could save surgeons valuable time and prevent mistakes.

During operations, surgeons might encounter unexpected developments. If they do, they can ask voice agents about their patients and other pertinent information. Doing so can yield immediate answers that can lead to more effective outcomes.

Such databases provide medical professionals with knowledge. They also connect with each other. As orthopedic surgeon Kevin Stone noted, “While my head may hold a career’s worth of knowledge, and my hands skilled by practice, I was but one individual. I am alone no more.”

How can we use robotics during pandemics?

Connectivity is something we crave, something we need to survive. But the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened many of our connections.

Because the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is so dangerously contagious, many of us have lived or are living under government orders that have limited our contact with loved ones, coworkers, and classmates. We haven’t been able to travel, gather in groups, or do many other things that involve other people.

For some, that means they haven’t received medical procedures they were scheduled to receive. Using robotics and AI for surgical procedures in the future could lead to fewer stoppages of care and more immediate treatment.

It’s true that operations with robots still enlist multiple people, but they require fewer. While many conventional surgeries can place up to a dozen people in the operating room at the same time, the HowStuffWorks site says that robot-aided “surgery may require only one surgeon, an anesthesiologist, and one or two nurses.”

Fewer people in an operating room means fewer opportunities for contagion. Fewer people could transmit a coronavirus or another pathogen that could be especially dangerous for people who are already sick or battling other medical conditions.

Many people have spread COVID-19 because they didn’t have symptoms, and they didn’t know they had it. Reducing people and reducing contact can thus reduce the spread of the disease.

How can we use remote robotics during pandemics?

Robotic-assisted surgery may involve fewer people in an operating room at one time. What if it didn’t include a surgeon in the room at all?

That’s what happened in India. A 2019 study says that a heart surgeon in the country operated remotely on five people, even though the surgeon was twenty miles away from the patients. The surgery used robots to insert stents to open the blood vessels of people with coronary artery disease.

In the past, professionals have been concerned about the lag time between the actions of the surgeons controlling the robots and the actions of the robots performing the procedures.

With technological advances, tests indicate that lag time may not be the problem it once was. This may make remote robotic surgery more appealing to more medical practitioners.

Using this technology, if the pandemic continues or a second surge of cases hits, surgeons don’t have to travel to multiple medical facilities. For surgeons, staying in place can provide personal and public health benefits.

That’s because the more hospitals surgeons visit, the more people they meet. By staying at one medical facility, surgeons reduce their risks of contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to vulnerable patients.

Reducing the risk of contagion may allow some people to undergo some procedures, even during a pandemic. Treating many conditions early, before they worsen, can provide many health benefits.

It could mean that patients don’t develop complications that send them back to the hospital for additional treatment or conditions that weaken them and make them more susceptible to COVID-19 and other diseases.

Early treatment can even be less expensive and easier for medical facilities and insurance coverage to address. Remote robotic surgery, then, can provide different benefits for different groups of people.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we do and think about many things. Many of us have used telehealth tools, such as virtual doctor’s appointments, to address our medical needs.

Using robotics and artificial intelligence might be the next logical step in our journey to find effective medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Viruses are smart and adaptable, so shouldn’t our health care be too?

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor at Sunshine Behavioral Health who is interested in science, history, human rights, gender issues, and many other topics.

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