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The field of healthcare technology is continuing its phenomenal pace of innovation. With lifespans noticeably increasing with improved drugs, procedures and scientific study, biotech and other medical technology companies are booming in investment and inventions. Some of the most exciting work is being done with robots, and specifically, robots that perform surgery. While there is still much work to be done to ensure safety and effectiveness, the likelihood of you receiving future care from a manufactured surgeon is growing every day.
In a bid to offset some of the current risks of robotic surgery, researchers from Boston-based startup Soft Robotics Inc. (in association with Harvard’s Whitesides Research Group) are working on “soft” robots made of rubber and powered by pumping compressed air through internal channels. Resembling four-legged starfish, the as-yet-unnamed prototypes take advantage of their flexibility by being less harmful to the delicate internal organs and tissues inside our bodies. They offer another benefit as well: with current 3D printing technology, these robots could be created in a couple days with widely available materials costing around $20. Though they are not yet capable of the sophisticated maneuvers current hard surgical robots offer, with enough funding we could be seeing these gentle robots in operating rooms soon.
Another group of scientists and engineers at Bristol Robotics Laboratory are working with orthopedic surgeons to develop a robot assistant that will be able to help reset and restructure broken bones with minimal invasiveness. Designed for especially tricky joint reconstruction, where all bone fragments must be properly realigned to ensure proper healing and prevent the later occurrence of debilitating arthritis, the team hopes the robots will lead to better treatment and faster healing. According to Dr. Sanja Dogramadzi, using software and CT scans to tell the device how to orient bone fragments “will allow earlier surgery; reliable, perfect fragment re-alignment; less onerous surgery; improved patient outcomes; faster rehabilitation; reduced hospital stays; earlier return to work; arthritis avoidance; and significantly reduced … costs.”
Additional applications of robotic surgeons are numerous, and range from small to large. Among the many possibilities currently being considered, and for which patents have been filed, there are: tiny robots that can be steered through your veins by bacteria to deliver targeted drug therapy; injectable robots to target diseases in the brain and spine; pill-shaped, swallowed robots with cameras to record your digestive tract and especially your small intestine; skull-mounted neurosurgical robots for precision and which save space; and even nursing robots with a soft touch which can move and care for patients.
All of these innovations show a lot of promise for operating rooms of the future, and are an encouraging notion for both robot enthusiasts and healthcare technology.
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