It’s now generally accepted as a fact that robotics will play a much greater role in healthcare across the 2020s and beyond. Indeed, that ball is already rolling and gathering pace.
Estimates vary, but it’s assumed that the value of the global healthcare robotics industry is just under $10 billion (it was just $5 billion in 2017), with the USA as the biggest market. Of course, that’s still relatively niche.
For perspective, $10 billion is around half the size of the plant-based meat industry, and the entire global healthcare industry is estimated to be worth $8.45 trillion.
The technology is coming, and it’s safe to assume that there will be a snowball effect in the next few years. There is, however, something of a disconnect between our perceptions of robotics and the reality. We get our ideas of such things from playing video games with robots or from Hollywood sci-fi movies featuring human-like robots. That’s pretty far from what we are dealing with in healthcare, at least for now.
Repetitive tasks perfect for robots
Indeed, when looking across a lot of the advancements that have been made in the sector over the last few years, the key term that sticks out is “repetition”. By that, we mean robots carrying out repetitive tasks that are normally done by a human. Say, for example, acupuncture or repetitive exercises for rehabilitating a patient. Due to its emphasis on repetition, physiotherapy is one of the most conducive sectors for robotics technology, and we can see evidence of this taking off ahead of more complicated procedures.
But there are certainly developments in more sophisticated areas of healthcare. Perhaps when we envisage a future with robots in healthcare, the common image we see is robots performing surgery. That’s a legacy from science fiction films, but it’s not as far away as most people think. The global leader in the sector is Surgical, a Californian firm that makes da Vinci surgical robots.
The da Vinci surgical robots have, in fact, been performing operations for over 20 years. The focus goes on “minimally invasive” surgery, as opposed to open surgery. While the former is generally less complicated than the latter, robotics can be used in important procedures like the removal of tumors, as well as operations on the heart and brain.
KUKA Awards will showcase innovation in the sector
But perhaps the most important aspect is its ease of use. One report by the BBC, which hailed the dawn of robotic surgery in a report on Versius (a rival to da Vinci), claimed that it would take around 80 hours of teaching time to verse medical students in how to perform suturing with laparoscopic tools. In contrast, learning the procedure with Versius takes around 30 minutes.
With an eye to the future, however, anyone interested in this sector might look at the 2022 KUKA Innovation Awards. KUKA is a German manufacturer of robots for a range of industrial purposes, but it acts as a promoter of the worldwide robotics industry. The focus on its 2022 awards is the “Robotics in Healthcare Challenge”. Teams from around the world will compete for the award, with the winners announced at a ceremony in November 2022. This, perhaps more than anything else we see this year, should give us an insight into where the robotics healthcare sector is going and what the possibilities are for the future.