Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: Breakthrough of robots in healthcare

We have already written a lot about the development of robotics and the impact on society and the economy, and the practical use of robots, especially in catering and tourism. Today we will look at the role of robots in healthcare.

With advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), robots have gained significant potential for use in healthcare and nursing. Robots change the way surgeries are performed, simplify the delivery of devices and medicines, and facilitate disinfection, thus freeing up staff time and enabling in-depth patient care.

However, robots in the medical field are not a recent innovation, as they appeared almost 40 years ago when they helped surgeons perform surgeries. Of course, medical robotics has changed, improved over the years, and thus expanded its capabilities to many other areas of nursing.

Robots can be helpful in healthcare in many ways. Photo: Anolytics.

Robots can be helpful in healthcare in many ways. Photo: Anolytics.

The recent coronavirus pandemic has only further encouraged the use of robots, as staff have been able to reduce contact with patients infected with the virus. To date, it has become clear that the effectiveness and risk reduction provided by medical robotics offers benefits in many areas.

Nursing robots

The ageing population is presenting more and more of a challenge. The global share of the population aged 60 years or over is projected to reach 21.1% by 2050. The elderly also need care or certain conditions to live a dignified life despite their age. In addition, there is a greater chance of various diseases in this population group.

Additionally, there are already trends indicating labour shortages. Among the fields that stand out, in particular, are medical staff, especially nurses caring for patients. However, the lack of staff also means that existing employees must do more work in less time, which increases pressure and can have severe consequences for both patient relations and the health status of health professionals.

Nursing robots can help short-staffed teams. Nurses perform many routine tasks every day, such as drawing blood and monitoring vital signs. Today’s medical robots, equipped with advanced technology, can complete several of these everyday tasks or be of great assistance.

For example, a robot can help a nurse draw blood by producing a 3D image of a patient’s arm to show a nurse exactly where the vein is. Blood sampling is thus more straightforward and faster, and patient experience is also improved since needles can be painful and even frightening for many people.

Robots can also help with lifting and transferring patients. For example, the University Clinical Center in Maribor hospital recently introduced a humanoid robot that takes patients’ temperature and blood pressure. The UKC management intends to relieve the staff with such approaches.

A humanoid robot named Frida at the UKC Maribor hospital. Photo: Ptuj INFO.
A humanoid robot named Frida at the UKC Maribor hospital. Photo: Ptuj INFO.

Sanitation robots

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the importance of sanitising and disinfecting people and spaces in all areas. High-quality disinfection in healthcare centres and hospitals is even more critical for a quality treatment process.

It could be life-threatening for a patient recovering from surgery to become infected with a particular virus while at the hospital. However, deep cleaning and disinfection require dedication and much time from staff, so robots serve as an ideal solution.

The robots that use ultraviolet technology to sanitise areas. Photo: UVD Robots.

The robots that use ultraviolet technology to sanitise areas. Photo: UVD Robots.

These are straightforward and monotonous tasks that an institution can leave to robots with UV disinfection technology. Staff can then focus on more complex tasks such as cleaning up and arranging gadgets.

UV disinfection robots are an excellent choice for healthcare centres and other institutions. They can kill bacteria, germs, and viruses on surfaces simply by shining a UV beam over them. Robots can autonomously navigate rooms and hallways and disinfect all surfaces they encounter.

Exoskeletons or external skeletons

Robotic exoskeletons are wearable electromechanical devices developed to enhance the physical performance of the wearer or as orthotic devices for patients recovering from surgeries and injuries.

In both cases, they can have a far-reaching impact on medicine. Recovery of patients from injuries requires intensive physical therapy. Robotic exoskeletons act as an external set of bones and muscles, using robotics to train the body and teach it how to move properly again. Similarly, exoskeletons may even be able to help disabled people regain their mobility.

These types of robots, however, not only help patients physically but can also make their emotional rehabilitation easier. Walking and moving outside can be incredibly beneficial to the healing process, leading to reduced stress and faster recovery times. Patients also gain a sense of independence and motivation, as with previous robots; in this case, too, an overburdened medical staff is helped.

Robotic companions

Let’s go back to the problem of the ageing population. We mentioned that the elderly have the right to a decent and content time, but often loneliness is the first obstacle.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin have developed a robot known as “Stevie”, which primarily provides emotional support to patients and the elderly who can talk and socialise with it.

In 2019, Stevie was tested in a nursing home that was home to 300 residents at the time. The robot could have conversations with residents and even play games with them. The research team found that the residents genuinely enjoyed spending time with the robot, even inviting him to a karaoke night.

Robot in the company of the elderly. Photo: Omsorgsforskningt.
Robot in the company of the elderly. Photo: Omsorgsforskningt.

Stevie also constantly monitors people during socialising and looks for possible signs of medical distress. It can recognise voice commands like “Help me” and calls medical staff in an emergency.

The robotics industry is constantly evolving, which means that new innovations are already lurking around the next corner and will further change the concept of treatment and healthcare. For now, robots seem to bring many advantages, but as with any new case, we need to be careful with them.

Author: Marko Želko

Keywords: digitisation, robotics, healthcare, technology.


This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK) Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament. 

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.