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The Robots in Healthcare Are Here to Stay (Part 1)

Joan Cornet, Director Digital Health Observatory and Coalition of the Willing at ECHAlliance, explains how robots or robotics has changed the way we work, while adding never-before-seen value to society. This is Part One in a series of articles. 

One of my readings this summer was Ian McEwan’s novel “Machines Like me”. I have really enjoyed reading this novel. (1)

“Machines Like Me” conjures a love triangle between a floundering Brit named Charlie Friend, a secretive doctoral student named Miranda and a replicant named Adam. It is a sharp, unsettling read, which has a lot on its mind about love, family, jealousy and deceit. Ultimately, it asks a surprisingly mournful question: If we built a machine that could look into our hearts, could we really expect it to like what it sees?

Over the last 15 years, robots or robotics has changed the way we work, while adding never-before-seen value to society. Robotics, what’s it all about? Well, at a general level it’s about automating different functions across the social and enterprise spectrum, reducing the costs of goods and freeing up employees and citizens to become more efficient and care-free.


The definition of “robot” has been confusing from the very beginning. The word first appeared in 1921, in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. “Robot” comes from the Czech for “forced labor.”

Robots are “physically embodied systems capable of enacting physical change in the world” (Riek,2015, p. 185) They enact this change with effectors which can move the robot (locomotion), or objects in the environment (manipulation). Robots typically use sensor data to make decisions. They can vary in their degree of autonomy, from fully autonomous (the robot makes all decisions itself) to fully teleoperated (an operator makes all decisions for the robot), though most modern systems have mixed initiative, or shared autonomy. More broadly, robotics technology includes affiliated systems, such as related sensors, algorithms for processing data, and so on (Riek, 2015). (2)

The human activity assistive technology model showing the assistive technology component. From Assistive Technologies: Principles and Practice (4th ed., p. 26), by A. M. Cook and J. M. Polgar, 2015, St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby. Copyright 2015 by Elsevier Inc. Adapted with permission.


The Three Laws of Robotics are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The rules were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround” (included in the 1950 collection I, Robot), although they had been foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Three Laws, quoted as being from the “Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.”, are:

First Law

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law

A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws(3)


Fair use,

Can I Help You? The Future of Socially Assistive Robots in Healthcare

Autonomous Systems and Bio mechatronics Lab. University of Toronto.


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1. Improving accuracy

Robotic systems don’t have feelings, they can’t get tired, and they never have a slip of attention. If this sounds like the perfect surgeon, it was also the reasoning behind multiple robots that are already used in top hospitals around the world. Called Waldo surgeons, these can bridge the gap between humans and machines and perform tasks with excellent precision, increased strength and no tremors of the knife. As long as the software is correctly set for the undergoing procedure, the human surgeon takes a secondary, supervising role.

Excellent precision also comes in the form of targeted micro-robots, which go precisely where they are needed and deploy drugs locally or even perform micro-surgery, such as unclogging blood vessels.

2. Precise diagnosis

The real power of AI, claim In Data Labs experts, lies in detecting patterns that describe various conditions by studying healthcare records and other data. The machine can scan thousands of cases and look for correlations between hundreds of variables, some of which are not even listed in current medical works.


Tests so far have proven that robotic systems can rival the best doctors and even surpass them in some areas. For example, an endoscopic system from Japan detects colon cancer in real time and is 86% accurate. However, this is not as impressive as IBM Watson, which has already hit the 99% mark in cancer diagnosis.

3. Remote treatment

One way AI, together with some AR capabilities, can help surgeons is by creating a real-time, customized overlay during the surgery, highlighting blood vessels and other sensitive areas. If a robotic arm is used, the knowledge library can suggest various tools to be used based on current best practices.

4. Augmenting human abilities

Some medical robots assist patients in addition to medical staff. For example, exoskeleton robots can help paralyzed patients walk again and be independent of caretakers.


Another application of technology is a smart prosthesis. These bionic limbs have sensors that make them sometimes more reactive and accurate than the original body parts, adding the possibility to cover these with bionic skin and connect them to the person’s muscles.

5. Supporting mental health and daily tasks

Service robots can perform human functions like making sick or elderly patients feel less lonely. Conversational and companion robots can help these patients stay positive, remind them to take their medicine and perform simple routine check-ups like temperature, blood pressure, and sugar levels.

These are almost like personal assistants, and even come with built-in personality and sentiment analysis capabilities, which are especially helpful for depressed patients (5)


  • Technological dimension (including technological features, technological infrastructures)
  • Social/human dimension (including usability, human-technology interaction, attitudes)
  • Organizational dimension (including organizational strategy, management, implementation)
  • Macro-environmental dimension (regulation, legal, and ethical dimensions) (5)

Automation driven by digital health care technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, could heavily contribute to the long-term sustainability and profitability of health care systems. Robots can help improve operational efficiencies by taking over administrative or repetitive clinical tasks, such as monitoring patient vital statistics and logging patient data into the EHR. In these examples, robots not only provide precision in completing these tasks, they also help reduce clinicians’ workload, giving them more time to spend with patients.

The implications for the usage of robotics in the future of health care go even further, but there’s one thing that can inhibit the growth of robotics in the health care industry: lack of trust in the technology. But there’s no need for clinicians to shy away from something that could do so much good. In the next article we will show some examples of robots and the ways they can have a positive impact on health care. Also, to identify the main ethical and legal challenges that brings robotics in the clinical practice.

(To be continued next month…)


  1. Machines Like Me. Ian McEwan. 2019
  2. Riek, L. D. (2015). Robotics technology in mental healthcare. In D. Luxton (Ed.), Artificial intelligence in behavioral health and mental health care (pp. 185–203). San Diego, CA: Elsevier. B978-0-12-420248-1.00008-8
  3. Asimov, Isaac (1950). “Runaround”. I, Robot (The Isaac Asimov Collection ed.). New York City: Doubleday. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-385-42304-5.
  4. Ways AI and Robotics Are Improving Healthcare
  5. Fereday J, Muir-Cochrane E. Demonstrating rigor using thematic analysis: a hybrid approach of inductive and deductive coding and theme development. Int J Qual Methods. 2006;5(1):80–92. doi: 10.1177/160940690600500107. [CrossRef] [Google Scholar] [Ref list]
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