They're here -- and more are on the way. The world of medicine has seen a steady rise of the robots over the last several years. If you or someone close to you hasn't encountered a robot helping provide health care, it's only a matter of time. From surgery to taking care of the elderly, here's how robots are riding to the rescue.
Surgery and more
Use of robots in surgery has become quite commonplace. Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ: ISRG ) says that around 450,000 surgical procedures were performed last year using its da Vinci robotic surgical system. Just five years ago, that number stood at 136,000 procedures. Its robotic systems have powered Intuitive Surgical to a market cap of more than $20 billion.
Accuray's (NASDAQ: ARAY ) CyberKnife robotic radiosurgery system has revolutionized cancer surgery. Since receiving Food and Drug Administration clearance in 1999, CyberKnife has been used to treat patients numbering well into the six figures. The technology started out being used only for tumors in the head and neck, but it soon expanded for use anywhere in the body where radiation treatment could be used.
MAKO Surgical (UNKNOWN: MAKO.DL ) hasn't seen those levels of success yet, but its robotic surgical system was used in more than 10,000 orthopedic surgeries last year. Since its inception in 2006, around 23,000 procedures had been performed using MAKO's technology as of the end of 2012.
Now, robots are helping physicians in another way -- by being where the doctors can't be. iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT ) and InTouch Health combined forces to develop RP-VITA (which stands for Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant), a robot that can navigate its way through a hospital and incorporates telemedicine and electronic health record integration. Physicians can remotely consult with and monitor patients before, during, or after surgeries. The FDA cleared RP-VITA for use in hospitals in January of this year.
Robots have been used to perform some of the grunt work in pharmacies for over a decade. Over a third of medium and large-sized hospitals in the U.S. use McKesson's ROBOT-Rx pharmacy robot. The robot handles storing, dispensing, and restocking functions automatically, reducing manual effort and increasing filling accuracy in the process.
More than 140 U.S. hospitals use privately held Aethon's TUG robots to deliver lab results, linens, and medications to the correct destination. Swisslog's RoboCourier robot performs these same kinds of functions that used to require human "runners."
It isn't ready for use just yet, but GE (NYSE: GE ) Global Research is working with the Veterans Administration on a robotic system that will ensure the correct surgical instruments are sterilized and available for use when and where they're needed. Manual preparation of surgical tools currently can often be inefficient and sometimes lead to delays and even adverse events for patients. The system being developed by GE is expected to be ready by the end of 2014 for testing in a VA hospital.
Into the future
The most revolutionary uses of robots in health care aren't widely available yet but are just on the horizon. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology created Cody, a robotic nurse that can actually bathe an elderly patient. Across the Atlantic, scientists at England's University of Reading have developed Hector, a robot that helps elderly patients by reminding them when it's time to take medications and provides help in case the patients fall as well as other providing other assistance.
Toyota debuted several different robots in 2011 that help paralyzed patients. Two of these robots hook on to a patient's paralyzed leg and guide the leg to bend and move forward -- basically, to walk. Another helps a patient to move, perhaps from a bed to the toilet. Toyota hopes to commercialize these robots sometime after the end of this year.
With increasingly more elderly in the U.S. and concerns about shortages of health care workers, these developments are welcome rather than scary. They also present some intriguing investment opportunities. As medicine's rise of the robots gains momentum, perhaps the sentiment expressed by the rock group Styx in the '80s will be one held by many Americans: "Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto." Except maybe now it should be "Dr. Roboto."
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