Improving Outcomes with Robotics in Healthcare

Medical robots assist with surgery, streamline hospital logistics, and enable providers to give more direct attention to patients.

Robots in the medical field are transforming how surgeries are performed, streamlining supply delivery and disinfection, and freeing up time for providers to engage with patients. Intel offers a diverse portfolio of technology for the development of health robotics, including surgical-assistance, modular, service, social, mobile, and autonomous robots.

Emerging in the 1980s, the first robots in the medical field offered surgical assistance via robotic arm technologies. Over the years, artificial intelligence (AI)–enabled computer vision and data analytics have transformed health robotics, expanding capabilities into many other areas of healthcare.

Robots are now used not only in the operating room, but also in clinical settings to support health workers and enhance patient care. During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and clinics began deploying robots for a much wider range of tasks to help reduce exposure to pathogens. It’s become clear that the operational efficiencies and risk reduction provided by health robotics offer value in many areas.

For example, robots can clean and prep patient rooms independently, helping limit person-to-person contact in infectious disease wards. Robots with AI-enabled medicine identifier software reduce the time it takes to identify, match, and distribute medicine to patients in hospitals.

As technologies evolve, robots will function more autonomously, eventually performing certain tasks entirely on their own. As a result, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers can focus on providing more empathy in patient care.

Benefits of Robotics in Healthcare

Health robotics enable a high level of patient care, efficient processes in clinical settings, and a safe environment for both patients and health workers.

High-Quality Patient Care

Medical robots support minimally invasive procedures, customized and frequent monitoring for patients with chronic diseases, intelligent therapeutics, and social engagement for elderly patients. In addition, as robots alleviate workloads, nurses and other caregivers can offer patients more empathy and human interaction, which can promote long-term well-being.

Operational Efficiencies

Service robots streamline routine tasks, reduce the physical demands on human workers, and ensure more consistent processes. These robots can keep track of inventory and place timely orders, helping make sure supplies, equipment, and medication are where they are needed. Mobile cleaning and disinfection robots allow hospital rooms to be sanitized and readied for incoming patients quickly.

Safe Work Environment

Service robots help keep healthcare workers safe by transporting supplies and linens in hospitals where pathogen exposure is a risk. Cleaning and disinfection robots limit pathogen exposure while helping reduce hospital acquired infections (HAIs)—and hundreds of healthcare facilities are already using them.1 Social robots also help with heavy lifting, such as moving beds or patients, which reduces physical strain on healthcare workers.

Health robotics enable a high level of patient care, efficient processes in clinical settings, and a safe environment for both patients and health workers.

Surgical-Assistance Robots

As motion control technologies have advanced, surgical-assistance robots have become more precise. These robots help surgeons perform complex microprocedures without making large incisions. As surgical robotics continue to evolve, AI-enabled robots will eventually use computer vision to navigate to specific areas of the body while avoiding nerves and other obstacles. Some surgical robots may even be able to complete tasks autonomously, allowing surgeons to oversee procedures from a console.

Surgeries performed with robotics assistance fall into two main categories:

  • Minimally invasive surgeries for the torso. These include robotic hysterectomy, robotic prostatectomy, bariatric surgery, and other procedures primarily focused on soft tissues. After insertion through a small incision, these robots lock themselves into place, creating a stable platform from which to perform surgeries via remote control. Open surgery using large incisions was once the norm for most internal procedures. Recovery times were much longer, and the potential for infection and other complications was greater. Working manually through a button-sized incision is extremely difficult, even for an experienced surgeon. Surgical robots, such as the da Vinci robot by Intuitive, make these procedures easy and accurate, with a goal to reduce infections and other complications.
  • Orthopedic surgeries. Devices like the Mako robot by Stryker can be preprogrammed to perform common orthopedic surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements. Combining smart robotic arms, 3D imaging, and data analytics, these robots enable more predictable results by employing spatially defined boundaries to assist the surgeon. AI modeling enables the Mako robot to be trained in specific orthopedic surgeries, with precise direction for where to go and how to perform the procedures.

The ability to share a video feed from the operating room to other locations—near or far—allows surgeons to benefit from consultations with other specialists leading their field. As a result, patients have the best surgeons involved in their procedures.

The field of surgical robotics is evolving to make greater use of AI. Computer vision enables surgical robots to differentiate between types of tissue within their field of view. For example, surgical robots now have the ability to help surgeons avoid nerves and muscles during procedures.2 High-definition 3D computer vision can provide surgeons with detailed information and enhanced performance during procedures. Eventually, robots will be able to take over small subprocedures, such as suturing or other defined tasks under the watchful gaze of the surgeon.

Robotics plays a key role in surgeon training as well. The Mimic Simulation Platform, for example, uses AI and virtual reality to provide surgical robotics training to new surgeons. Within the virtual environment, surgeons can practice procedures and hone skills using robotics controls.

Modular Robots

Modular robots enhance other systems and can be configured to perform multiple functions. In healthcare, these include therapeutic exoskeleton robots and prosthetic robotic arms and legs.

Therapeutic robots can help with rehabilitation after strokes, paralysis, traumatic brain injuries, or multiple sclerosis. These robots, equipped with AI and depth cameras, can monitor a patient’s form as they go through prescribed exercises, measuring degrees of motion in different positions and tracking progress more precisely than the human eye. They can also interact with patients to provide coaching and encouragement.

Service Robots

Service robots relieve the daily burden on healthcare workers by handling routine logistical tasks. Many of these robots function autonomously and can send a report when they complete a task. These robots set up patient rooms, track supplies and file purchase orders, restock medical supply cabinets, and transport bed linens to and from laundry facilities. Having some routine tasks performed by service robots gives health workers more time to focus on immediate patient needs.

Social Robots

Social robots interact directly with humans. These “friendly” robots can be used in long-term care environments to provide social interaction and monitoring. They may encourage patients to comply with treatment regimens or provide cognitive engagement, keeping patients alert and positive. They also can be used to offer direction to visitors and patients inside the hospital environment. In general, social robots help reduce caregiver workloads and improve patients’ emotional well-being.

Mobile Robots

Mobile robots move around hospitals and clinics following a wire or predefined tracks. They’re used for a wide range of purposes—disinfecting rooms, helping transport patients, or moving heavy machinery. Cleaning and disinfection mobile robots may use ultraviolet (UV) light, hydrogen peroxide vapors, or air filtration to help reduce infection and sanitize reachable places in a uniform way.

Autonomous Robots

Autonomous robots with built-in light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems, visual compute, or mapping capabilities can self-navigate to patients in exam or hospital rooms, allowing clinicians to interact from afar. Robots controlled by a remote specialist or other worker can also accompany doctors as they make hospital rounds, allowing the specialist to contribute on-screen consultation regarding patient diagnostics and care. These robots can keep track of their own batteries and make their way back to charging stations when necessary.

Some autonomous robots perform cleaning and disinfection, navigating through infectious disease wards, operating rooms, laboratories, and public hospital spaces. One autonomous robot prototype developed by the startup Akara is being tested for disinfecting contaminated surfaces using UV light. Its goal is to help hospitals sanitize rooms and equipment, aiding in the fight against COVID-19. The prototype uses an Intel® Movidius™ Myriad™ X VPU to navigate safely around people as it works.

Intel® Technologies for Robotics in Healthcare

Intel® technologies enable health robotics solutions among a diverse ecosystem of hardware manufacturers and software providers. Intel offers a wide range of compute technologies with support for computer vision to meet the design needs of high-performance surgical-assistance technologies; mobile delivery and autonomous UV disinfection robots; and robots that enable better patient monitoring, specialist consultation, enhanced social engagement, and more.

Intel® Technologies Provide a Foundation for Robotics in Healthcare
Intel® Movidius™ VPUs Intel® Movidius™ VPUs power a range of medical robots, from those that join doctors on hospital rounds to cleaning robots. During the COVID-19 pandemic, one UV disinfection robot prototype equipped with an Intel® Movidius™ Myriad™ X VPU navigated safely around people while disinfecting hospital surfaces.
Intel® RealSense™ technology Intel® RealSense™ depth cameras help providers track changes in the joints of rheumatoid arthritis patients to precisely monitor progression of the disease. For patients in physical therapy, cameras allow therapists to monitor changes in range of motion to more accurately determine progress in rehabilitation.
Intel® Distribution of OpenVINO™ toolkit3 The Intel® Distribution of OpenVINO™ toolkit streamlines the development of vision applications on Intel platforms, including VPUs and CPUs. This portfolio enables a range of use cases, from surgical-assistance robots to service and social robots that autonomously navigate hospital corridors.
Intel® Core™ processors and Intel Atom® processors Intel® processors come in a range of options for compute performance and power consumption, enabling everything from deep learning–enabled surgical robots to low-power disinfection robots.
Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors deliver high performance for edge servers in hospitals and clinics, offering a foundation for the data generated by connected systems and devices.
Intel-supported 5G networks Intel-supported 5G networks will increase access to medical specialists via video-based checkups and enable AR/VR-assisted surgeries through unparalleled connection speeds, ultralow latency, and extreme network reliability. 

The Future of Robotics and Healthcare

Health robotics will continue to evolve alongside advancements in machine learning, data analytics, computer vision, and other technologies. Robots of all types will continue to evolve to complete tasks autonomously, efficiently, and accurately.

Intel is working in collaboration with technology providers and researchers to explore the next generation of robotics solutions. For example, Intel Labs China is partnering with the Suzhou Collaborative Innovation Medical Robot Research Institute to establish a medical robotics incubator for startups. Providing technology and research support, Intel is aiding the discovery of new applications for AI and IoT technologies within the field of medical robotics. These contributions support ongoing innovations that increase automation, drive efficiencies, and solve some of the greatest healthcare challenges.

Frequently Asked Questions

A fast-growing area in healthcare, the use of medical robotics is bringing greater precision to surgical procedures and efficiencies to hospitals and clinics.

Robots in the medical field span several areas. For example, surgical robots enable minimally invasive surgeries and allow newer surgeons to perform complex procedures earlier in their careers. Mobile robots provide cleaning and disinfecting services along predefined pathways. Autonomous robots can self-navigate through clinics and hospitals, engaging with patients and enabling physicians to consult remotely.

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Product and Performance Information

1“Coronavirus: Robots use light beams to zap hospital viruses,” BBC, March 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51914722.
2“Robotic-assisted surgery FAQs,” UC Davis Health, https://health.ucdavis.edu/surgicalservices/roboticsurgery/faqs.html.
3Intel’s compilers may or may not optimize to the same degree for non-Intel microprocessors for optimizations that are not unique to Intel microprocessors. These optimizations include SSE2, SSE3, and SSSE3 instruction sets and other optimizations. Intel does not guarantee the availability, functionality, or effectiveness of any optimization on microprocessors not manufactured by Intel. Microprocessor-dependent optimizations in this product are intended for use with Intel microprocessors. Certain optimizations not specific to Intel microarchitecture are reserved for Intel microprocessors. Please refer to the applicable product user and reference guides for more information regarding the specific instruction sets covered by this notice.