Healthcare is a field that requires a human touch. Yet, when human providers are assisted by advanced technology, the possibilities are endless. Robotics in healthcare offers exciting potential for patient care, both for diagnostic purposes and for various treatments.
If you’re passionate about technology and its applications for improving lives from within the healthcare field, you might consider pursuing a career working on biomedical robotics. You can get your start by pursuing an engineering degree with an emphasis in robotics. In the meantime, read on to explore the history and types of robots in hospitals.
In This Article:
- A Brief History of Robotics in Healthcare
- How Are Robots Used in Healthcare Today?
- What Might the Future Hold for Robots in Hospitals?
- A Look at Common Types of Robots in Healthcare
- Earn Your Engineering Degree With a Robotics Specialization
A Brief History of Robotics in Healthcare
One of the first mentions of robotics is found in a 1917 short story, Opilec, by Czech writer and artist Joseph Capek. The story refers to them as “automats.” In 1921, Capek’s brother Karel wrote the play Rossum’s Universal Robots, which popularized the more modern term “robot.” At the time, of course, robots were relegated to science fiction and it took quite some time before the first robots were actually created.1
In 1985, industrial robotic technology was used to perform a surgery for the first time. Scientists modified an industrial robotic arm to perform a stereotactic brain biopsy; it was able to achieve super-human accuracy to within 0.05 mm. Furthermore, the robotic arm provided a prototype for the first medical robot to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — the “Neuromate,” approved in 1999.1
The 1990s witnessed further important advances in biomedical robotics. In 1992, for example, the Robodoc system was introduced for hip replacement surgeries. Although it was able to achieve greater accuracy than traditional hip replacement surgery techniques, high complication rates prevented FDA approval for the U.S. market.1
Another significant advancement was achieved in 1997, when the well-recognized da Vinci robotic surgical system (Intuitive Surgical, Inc.) successfully performed a laparoscopic (minimally invasive) cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal). To use the da Vinci system, the surgeon sits at a console and directs the precise maneuvering of the robotic arms. The surgeon is also assisted by 3D viewers that provide a clear view of the operating field.2
How Are Robots Used in Healthcare Today?
The da Vinci system is still in widespread use in healthcare today, with significant improvements having been made along the way. As of 2023, over 60,000 surgeons globally have performed more than 10 million procedures using this robotic technology, which can now be used for a wide range of procedures — not just gallbladder removals.2
Surgical robotics offers exciting potential for patients. Because robotic arms can manipulate surgical instruments with a higher degree of precision than human hands can, there is the possibility of lower complication rates and less damage to surrounding tissues. In addition, the technology supports minimally invasive surgeries, as opposed to open surgeries — the smaller incisions of minimally invasive procedures are less painful and heal more quickly.3
Today’s robots in healthcare can even allow doctors to perform surgeries from hundreds or thousands of miles away. In 2019, doctors in China performed an implantation into the brain of a Parkinson’s patient from almost 1,900 miles away.4
It isn’t only surgical patients who can benefit from robots in hospitals, either. Robots are being used to sterilize hospital spaces, manage medications and comfort elderly patients in nursing homes.
What Might the Future Hold for Robots in Hospitals?
The future looks exciting for robots in the healthcare field. Only time will tell what this niche will look like years in the future, but it’s entirely possible that doctors and nurses will be using robotic technology for tasks such as the following:5
- Performing sophisticated lab tests.
- Cleaning arteries of plaque to protect patients at risk of heart attacks.
- Precisely extracting biopsies of tissues in a way that causes minimal harm to the surrounding tissues.
- Accurately targeting cancerous tumors without harming the surrounding organs.
- Delivering targeted medication to the precise location in the body where it’s needed.
It’s also possible that there will be more patient-facing robotic technology. For example, robots could be programmed to provide medication reminders to patients when they need to take their pills. Robots might even be used to assess patients’ symptoms, referring the patients to a human doctor or nurse practitioner when necessary.
The use of robotic technology in the healthcare field offers many possibilities, but there are also significant challenges to overcome. One of those challenges is developing the technology itself. Others might include training enough skilled professionals on the use of the technology and building trust among patients.
A Look at Common Types of Robots in Healthcare
When robotic technology was initially used in the medical field, it was limited to surgical applications. A select few doctors who completed special training on the technology began to use robotic arms to perform highly precise surgeries, such as organ removal. However, since that time, the applications have expanded tremendously. Here’s a quick look at some of the types of robots in hospitals:
- Nursing robots: These can automatically monitor the vital signs of patients and assist with lifting and transferring patients. They can even create a 3D image of a patient’s arm in order to highlight that patient’s vein, making it easier for a nurse to draw blood.
- Sanitation robots: It’s impossible to overstate the importance of a sterile environment in hospitals. Hospital-acquired infections are always a concern for healthcare professionals, which is why sanitation robots are so exciting. These can perform deep cleaning to reduce the risk of infections.
- Exoskeletons: Patients who have suffered severe injuries or disabilities can use robotic exoskeletons as they undergo physical therapy. These exoskeletons can help patients relearn how to walk and make other movements.
Earn Your Engineering Degree With a Robotics Specialization
If you’re excited to see how robots used in healthcare can transform the patient care landscape, you might consider pursuing a career in biomedical robotics. With an engineering degree that has an emphasis in robotics, you could be equipped to pursue a career you might find exiting that can push the boundaries of modern technology.
If you enroll in a baccalaureate engineering degree program, you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:
- The application of mathematics to solve engineering problems, including signal processing, matrices, systems equations and differential equations.
- The fundamentals of computer-aided design (CAD), including the use of 2D and 3D design and modeling software as well as electrical and mechanical design integration.
- The function of circuits and their role in electrical engineering components, devices and systems.
- Robotic design, including the modeling of dynamic systems, interfacing computer hardware and developing simple control algorithms.
- Robotic applications, with a look at the programming and control of different robotic systems using analytical tools like MATLab/Simulink.
Depending on the school you choose, you may have the opportunity to complete one or more capstone courses. These involve the development of major projects that provide invaluable hands-on experience.
When you’re ready to advance the future of robots in healthcare, Grand Canyon University (GCU) is here to prepare you. The Bachelor of Science in Engineering with an Emphasis in Robotics degree program instills foundational competencies in engineering and robotics and provides hands-on experience for students. Fill out the form on this page to learn more about joining the engineering community at GCU.
1 Hockstein, N.G., Gourin, C.G., Faust, R.A. and Terris, D.J. (2007, March 17). A history of robots: from science fiction to surgical robotics. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved May 4, 2023.
2 Intuitive Surgical. (n.d.). Robotic-Assisted Surgery with da Vinci Systems. Retrieved May 4, 2023.
3 Liu, H. H., Li, L. J., Shi, B., Xu, C. W., & Luo, E. (2017). Robotic surgical systems in maxillofacial surgery: a review. International journal of oral science, 9(2), 63–73.
4 Frost, C. (2019, August 16). 5G is being used to perform remote surgery from thousands of miles away, and it could transform the healthcare industry. Business Insider. Retrieved May 4, 2023.
5 Gyles, C. (2019). Robots in medicine. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved July 19, 2023.
Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on July 18, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.