by Aftin Pomeroy
If a world-renowned physician and a robot with cutting edge medical programming walked into your hospital room to offer treatment, which would you choose to care for you? As far-fetched this scenario might seem, the usage of robots in the medicinal field is quickly becoming more commonplace. Advances in medicine have increased the average human lifespan, and the resulting acceleration in population growth requires improved accessibility to quality health care. The implementation of robotics has aided medical workers in reducing some of the barriers to seamless medical care. Expanding healthcare access, reducing trauma, strengthening procedure quality, and shortening recovery times are just a few aspects of medicine that robotics are currently addressing.
A variety of medical fields are benefiting from robotic advancements, especially in surgery. Serious conditions requiring emergency surgery, such as intestinal problems or hernias, often come with inherent risk due to the inability to plan for surgical optimization. Cases involving patients who are forced to undergo emergency surgery are up to eight times more fatal than that of those who undergo elective-based procedures [1,3]. It is clear that more accurate, repeatable and efficient surgical methods are required to improve the outcomes of general emergency surgeries. Human-operated surgical robots were developed largely in response to this need for an effective approach in the operating room that could “transcend human physical limitations in performing surgery and other interventional procedures, while still affording human control over the procedure.” 
Robots currently used in surgical procedures remain “…under the direct control of a surgeon, often in a teleoperation scenario in which a human operator manipulates a master input device, and patient-side robot follows the input” . There are implications that the operating room will eventually be robotically run, with surgeons overseeing and managing the moves of all artificial intelligence. Some fear that robots could eventually replace humans in the workplace; however, it is the necessary human-computer partnership that has calmed the nerves of society, as robots have not yet been able to operate without human supervision.
However, it was recently discovered that a robot could surprisingly outperform an experienced surgeon when repairing and suturing a damaged intestinal tract, without any external manual controls. “Autonomous robotic surgery—removing the surgeon’s hands—promises enhanced efficacy, safety, and improved access to optimized surgical techniques” . Machine developers state that the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) has independently reconnected two ends of the small intestine in a pig with sutures that proved to be more accurate, evenly spaced and durable than those created by human physicians. The robot completed the surgery much more efficiently and accurately than the medical professional, even when that medical professional used robotic tools.
Although robotics seems optimal to every hospital and medical facility that strives to provide the utmost level of care to their patients, the complete replacement of human physicians in the hospital setting may come at a price. Utilizing a wholly robotic workforce for a promised higher quality of patient care could potentially remove the patient’s opportunity for human-human contact when ill. According to a study in the Journal of General Integrative Medicine, “the doctor-patient relationship is remarkable during life-altering and meaningful times in persons' lives, times of birth, death, severe illness, and healing” . Removing this social and emotional interaction between physician and patient could trigger increased occurrences of complications in the patient, such as longer recovery times and hospital stays.
The introduction of robotics in the medical field has many potential benefits for both the industry and the patient; however, the effects must be carefully analyzed before any permanent decisions are made. Like the introduction of any new species into an ecological environment, the effects of this new “species” of robots on the receiving community must be carefully monitored and continuously reassessed. Robotics are likely to develop significant importance in the future, and have prospects to help our generation advance into realms we might never otherwise discover on our own. It is with hope and caution we must welcome this developing technology into our lives.
1. Dario P. 2103. Healthcare Robotics: Achievements and Challenges. UAE Forum on Information and Communication Technology Research. Khalifa University, Abu Dhabi: ICTRF 2013 - Information & Communication Technology Research Forum.
2. Goold, S. D., & Lipkin, M. 1999. The Doctor–Patient Relationship: Challenges, Opportunities, and Strategies. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 14(Suppl 1): S26–S33.
3. Havens JM, Olufajo OA, Cooper ZR, Haider AH, Shah AA, Salim A. 2016. Defining Rates and Risk Factors for Readmissions Following Emergency General Surgery. JAMA Surg. 151(4): 330-336.
4. Okamura, A. M., Mataric, M.J., and Christensen, H.I. 2010. Medical and Health-Care Robotics. IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine 17(3): 26-37.
5. Shademan, A., Decker, R., Opfermann, J., Leonard, S., Krieger, A., Kim, P. 2016. Supervised Autonomous Robotic Soft Tissue Surgery. Science Translational Medicine. 8 (337): 337ra64.