The robot will see you now

Editor
The Engineer

How would you feel if your family doctor was a robot? A criticism sometimes levelled at the UK’s health service is that it’s become depersonalised – that successive sets of reforms and the challenges of dealing with a growing and ageing population have ushered out the era of the friendly family doctor and left patients feeling isolated.

Little wonder then that the rise of medical robots – and the notion of replacing the human clinician with a machine – is regarded by many with horror. The phrase ’the doctor will see you now’ would certainly acquire an unsettling new edge if, rather than an affable, cricket-loving eccentric, the medic in question was an eight-armed droid with bright red eyes and a questionable bedside manner.

Fortunately, as our in report Cutting Edge: the rise of surgical robots explains, the idea that our human healthcare professionals are heading for enforced obsolescence belongs firmly in the realm of science fiction.

There are, as we report, some spectacular advances being made in the world of medical robots – from tele-operated devices that iron out shakes in a surgeon’s hand to haptic feedback systems that allow clinicians to feel their way through the body. But, without exception, these systems are designed to dovetail with human expertise; to bring to the world of surgery the kind of accuracy and repeatability that only robots can provide and, in many cases, enable surgeons to carry out complex procedures that were impossible just a few years ago.

Nevertheless, there’s clearly still a long way to go before medical robots entirely win the public’s trust. As one of the surgeons interviewed in our feature remarks, when he tells his patients he’s planning on using a robot they assume that he’ll be on the golf course while they’re being operated on by a machine.

The often prickly relationship between technology and healthcare is also addressed in our report on how electronics advances could lead to the creation of low-cost, easy-to-use DNA test devices.

The unravelling of the human genome is an extraordinary piece of scientific work and one that should ultimately help end some of our most pernicious illnesses. But, to get to that point, the data has to be deployable and finding the tools to exploit the power of this knowledge is a challenge that will be solved largely by engineers and technologists. And yet, despite the huge promise of the devices featured in our report, the prospect of unscrupulously marketed over-the-counter DNA tests is a worrying one. As digital healthcare pioneer Chris Toumazou argues, there should always be a clinical assistant in the background.

As with the use of surgical robots, the technology should enhance, not replace, human expertise. Remove the human touch and the benefits of the technology are lost, but master this tricky balancing act and the astounding work at the boundaries of medicine and engineering could soon be addressing some of the world’s biggest healthcare challenges.