XXX.1 January - February 2023
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Digital Citation

Robots in Healthcare

Rae Yule Kim

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People tend to be averse to interacting with robots and to the automation trend in general. One explanation is that many people are still susceptible to the media-generated impression of robots seen in movies such as The Terminator, where robots are not assistants but a threat to humanity. It is common for people to report a sense of uncanniness while interacting with robots, which is well documented in the uncanny valley theory and in many previous studies. Fortunately, this aversion toward robots is less salient in the medical field [1]. One reason is that the purpose of robots in this context is known to be beneficial to humans, such as increasing surgery success rates, enabling better and personalized care for patients, and creating a more hygienic hospital environment.


Medical robots are innovating how surgeries are performed, how patients are cared for, and how care facilities are maintained. Surgery and rehabilitation processes can be cognitively and emotionally exhausting for both healthcare professionals and patients. The depression rates among healthcare professionals tend to be exceptionally high compared to other types of occupations [2]. It is expected that deploying medical robots to assist professionals will improve the well-being of healthcare providers and patients by enabling a consistent level of surgical performance compared with that of human healthcare professionals. Robots are also revolutionizing patient care and rehabilitation. Previous research shows that patients who are treated with rehabilitation robots exhibit substantial improvement in both cognitive and motor rehabilitation [1].

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Medical robots are transforming healthcare.
Robots not only assist during surgery, they also help healthcare professionals in other aspects, from sanitizing hospitals during the pandemic to teaching social skills to children with autism.

Prior research also shows that interacting with social robots has beneficial psychological results, including reducing loneliness and increasing social motivation, comparable to those of interacting with people. People tend to treat social robots as human acquaintances, and emotions such as compassion can be effectively replicated in human-robot interactions [3]. Results from clinical studies of robots helping children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) learn emotions and social behaviors are promising [3]. Furthermore, social robots have an unexpected benefit when interacting with patients: People are more honest with robots than they are with human staff [4]. They tend to feel less anxious about being judged and adhering to social norms when they interact with robots compared with other people [4].

In this article, I review six of the many ways in which robots are innovating healthcare, including surgical procedures, nursing in care facilities, mental healthcare rehabilitation, care facility management, and reducing hazard ratios of diseases that are conventionally considered to be terminal.

back to top  Surgical Robots

Robot-assisted surgery enables novel solutions to treat complex injuries. With surgical robots, doctors can create a procedure that is unique and personalized to the patient's specific needs. The most common type of medical robotic assistance for surgical procedures is the teleoperation system that enables consistent and highly precise treatment [5]. So far, surgical robots usually do not involve autonomous surgical execution and decision making.

Medical robots assist surgeons with challenging tasks such as single-position fusions, which are often technically challenging because the procedure requires the percutaneous placement of pedicle screws. A review of clinical cases where robots perform the single-position fusions suggests that 98 percent of navigated robot-assisted pedicle screw placements are successful; in the other 2 percent of cases, surgeons reposition the screw at their discretion [5]. In all cases, no complications due to screw placement were reported [5].

back to top  Nursing Robots

Nursing is one of the fastest-growing occupations [6]. In addition to caring for and monitoring patients, nurses perform countless manual tasks. Most of the time, they are overworked, which affects their mental and physical health [2]. For this reason, the turnover rates are exceptionally high compared with those in other occupations [2]. Nursing robots can help reduce a number of duties for nurses, such as routine patient monitoring and collecting and dropping off lab samples.

back to top  Social Robots

Robots can assist medical treatments not only for physical injuries but also for mental health. Intuitively, mental healthcare might seem like a strictly human area, as treatment often requires emotional interaction and compassion. Robots, however, happen to be effective at providing emotional care.

Previous research suggests that people treat social robots like human acquaintances [3]. Human interactions that use social cues and compassion can be replicated in human-robot interactions. Clinical cases of social robots used in the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders show some promising results for the use of robots for mental healthcare. Interacting with social robots effectively elicits social behaviors among individuals with ASD [3]. In addition, interacting with social robots instead of healthcare staff has a surprising benefit for mental health diagnosis—people tend to be more open and honest while talking to a robot compared to human staff because they feel less worried about being judged or adhering to social norms [4].

back to top  Rehabilitation Robots

Robots are assisting in the healing process for both physical and cognitive restoration in many ways. Wearable robots, such as exoskeletons for the lower and upper limbs and end effectors for the distal part of the limb, help patients improve control of their body movements and help relieve pain [1]. Rehabilitation robotic systems let healthcare professionals create personalized work parameters based on the patient's progress while substantially increasing the work capacity of human healthcare providers.

ins02.gif Moxi, a nursing robot built by Austin-based Diligent Robotics, is assisting nurses at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

back to top  Sanitation Robots

The importance of sanitizing care facilities has gained momentum since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Consistent sanitizing efforts are vital to ensure the healing processes of hospitalized patients. Certain viral infections, including Covid-19, can lead to fatal complications of existing diseases.

Robots are ideal for this sanitizing task since they are not at risk of viral infection and are capable of thorough, systemized deep cleaning. In fact, many hospitals have deployed UVC disinfection robots that utilize ultraviolet radiation to kill microorganisms, including dirt or biological material that might contain bacteria and viruses, without having to touch surfaces [7]. In addition to care facilities, sanitization robots could be deployed in any public space, which might greatly improve public health in general.

back to top  Microbots

Microbots are microscopic robots that are small enough to travel through the human body. For example, to destroy a blood clot in a brain, microbots have to be small enough to travel through bloodstreams that can be as narrow as a micrometer—one-millionth of a meter.

Instead of cutting open the target area, microbots enable minimally invasive surgery, which creates minimal risk for further complications. Scientists envision microbots that can be used to target cancerous cells and attach anticancer drugs to the molecules as one potential way to fight cancer [8]. This ideation may become a reality with recent advancements in engineering technology [8]. Molecule-size microbots are already a reality [9], and the potential of microbots grows the smaller they get.

back to top  Robots in Healthcare

Healthcare is a constantly evolving industry. The recent incorporation of medical robots into healthcare delivery has shown some promising results, with substantial improvements made in surgical procedures, patient care, and hospital operations. Such innovations give a glimpse into the future. With the unlimited potential of microbots, the end of terminal diseases might happen in the near future.

Although robotics is not a fixture of all healthcare challenges, medical robots are transforming how healthcare is being delivered to patients. It is important to understand how medical robots are used in the healthcare field, as well as how patients and healthcare professionals react to them. This article discusses several ways in which robots can innovate healthcare. It is imperative to discuss further aspects that might influence the current and potential applications of robots in the field for the continued advancement of this technology.

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1. Giansanti, D. The rehabilitation and the robotics: Are they going together well? Healthcare (Basel) 9, 1 (2020), 26.

2. Bridgeman, P.J., Bridgeman, M.B., and Barone, J. Burnout syndrome among healthcare professionals. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy 75, 3 (2018), 147–152.

3. Diehl, J., Schmitt, L.M., Villano, M., and Crowell, C. The clinical use of robots for individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A critical review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 6, 1 (2012), 249–262.

4. Asar, A. Opening up to a robot? How mental health tech can help patients. Forbes. Apr. 2, 2021; https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/04/02/opening-up-to-a-robot-how-mental-health-tech-can-help-patients/?sh=83035761722c

5. Huntsman, K., Riggleman, J., Ahrendtsen, L., and Ledonio, C. Navigated robot-guided pedicle screws placed successfully in single-position lateral lumbar interbody fusion. Journal of Robotic Surgery 14, 1 (2020), 643–647.

6. Schwab, K. A hospital introduced a robot to help nurses. They didn't expect it to be so popular, Fast Company. Jul. 8, 2019; https://www.fastcompany.com/90372204/a-hospital-introduced-a-robot-to-help-nurses-they-didnt-expect-it-to-be-so-popular

7. Diab-El Schahawi, M. et al. Ultraviolet disinfection robots to improve hospital cleaning: Real promise or just a gimmick? Antimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control 10 (2021), 33.

8. Martel, M. Magnetic microbots to fight cancer. IEEE Spectrum, Sep. 25, 2022; https://spectrum.ieee.org/magnetic-microbots-to-fight-cancer

9. Chang, K. The microbots are on their way. The New York Times. Apr. 30, 2019; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/30/science/microbots-robots-silicon-wafer.html

back to top  Author

Rae Yule Kim is an assistant professor in the Feliciano School of Business at Montclair State University. [email protected]

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