A robot will see you now.
Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are moving from sci-fi to the operating room and opening up exciting new possibilities that are making the delivery of healthcare more efficient and economical. These advancements are needed now more than ever before, as the healthcare industry faces soaring costs, an aging population and a shortage of nurses.1
"We're really only just at the early stages of how robotics can change the healthcare landscape," says Laura Kane, Head of Investment Themes Americas for UBS.
How are robotics being used in healthcare today?
Pairing robots with doctors and surgeons in the operating room is an effective strategy. As the UBS Chief Investment Office notes in Longer-term investments—HealthTech , the use of robo assistance can improve surgical accuracy and reduce error rates. Robots are being used for minimally invasive techniques, which can help patients avoid more taxing surgeries that are harder on the body and raise the risk of infection.
Kane notes that robotic surgical procedures represent only 2% of total surgical procedures, but she expects the market to grow.
There are plenty of applications for these technologies outside the operating room as well. Robotic exoskeletons can help people recovering from orthopedic injuries, surgeries or those with neurological disorders. For those with cancer, nanobots are being used to target and destroy cancer cells. AI, meanwhile, can be used in the analysis of medical images to diagnosis certain conditions. For example, AI software developed by the Houston Methodist Research Institute was found to diagnose cancer risk at 30 times the speed of a human and with 99% accuracy.2
A growing need for innovation
An aging population is putting more and more pressure on healthcare budgets around the world, spurring healthcare providers to explore new technologies that can improve improve outcomes while saving costs, CIO's researchers note.
By helping detect certain diseases earlier, AI can reduce the need for expensive, unnecessary treatments or provide therapy plans without human intervention. For instance, a 2018 study found that AI software generated radiation therapy plans for 217 patients diagnosed with throat cancer in 20 minutes, a feat that could free up doctors to focus on other aspects of treatment, saving both time and money. AI algorithms and data are also being used to help improve patient outcomes, minimize expensive repeat hospitalizations and tailor treatment for patients.
In the UBS report Longer term investments—Automation and robotics , analysts write that automation-driven reductions in the cost of manufactured products can lower the cost of medical equipment and make it more accessible to low-income communities.
"When you think about broadening access to healthcare and making healthcare more affordable, this is going to be critical," Kane says. Even more so, considering that baby boomers are now well into their 60s. Kane adds that those who are over the age of 65 comprise two-thirds of total healthcare spending.
Meanwhile, people are living longer and more are suffering from lifestyle diseases that are costly to treat, such as obesity. Healthcare costs are also rising. US healthcare spending is on track for a higher-than-expected increase of 5.3 percent in 2018.4
Compounding the problem is that people are not only living longer, but they're having fewer children, leaving fewer young people to care for the elderly, Kane says.
Robots can step in to play a valuable role for in-home care and nursing home staff by handling routine, time-consuming tasks, such as reminding someone to take a pill or scheduling an appointment. They're also helping those who live in emerging markets. As Kane notes, “Machine learning can further extend the availability of quality medical care to remote regions through automated diagnosis.”
Proceed with caution
Even though robots receive high marks for accuracy and minimizing costs, and have tremendous potential to improve patient outcomes, Kane doesn't expect that they will completely replace the human touch of a healthcare professional who has a conscience and a compassionate bedside manner. “Robots are not capable of making ethical decisions," Kane notes. “They lack human qualities like empathy, intuition and experience."
So while robots might make a great human sidekick, they're best used to complement human expertise and aren't likely to completely replace nurses and doctors anytime soon.
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