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Healthcare Automation: Do Robots Have a Place in Medicine?


In clinics and hospitals nationwide, healthcare providers are seeing the impacts of growing technology and are being forced to adapt to a constantly evolving healthcare landscape. And as technology becomes more capable, its potential to take on traditionally “human” tasks becomes reality. Computers can perform tasks reliably and repetitively, all while recording, storing and, at times, analyzing data for subsequent use, something human error cannot compete with. Even further, the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning has opened doors to improve efficiency, quality and affordability.

On June 5 and 6, the Boston Device Talks conference brought together engineering, manufacturing, product development and other medical device professionals to discuss recent advancements in the field. Much discussion surrounded the automation and digitalization of healthcare and the role of robotics and AI in this evolution. Though there is great variation in the degrees of tech adoption, there is widespread acknowledgement of its inevitable growth and eventual role in everyday clinical practice. Technology will only become more perfect and powerful, so innovating alongside change rather than against it will likely yield greater progress.

As with any change, there are those who resist and those who embrace the opportunities it brings about. While the practice of medicine has traditionally been founded in interpersonal relationships between patient and provider, the increasing demand for services has created need for more optimized care delivery, which has largely been enabled by technology. We can leverage such advancements to create a future in which physicians focus more on high-level, strategic decisions, while much of the day-to-day minutiae that currently burden our system can be automated.

As Gregory Fischer, Ph.D., professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, commented, “The goal is not to disrupt the system but to enhance it.”

We do not want an entirely autonomous system, but we want actionable data to be provided to better inform clinical decision-making. Fischer noted that “data de-risks autonomy,” so having good data helps optimize the technology to be safer and more effective and thus lower risk.

Not only do we have to adapt to new technology, but technology also has to adapt to changes in health. As David Knapp, Ph.D., vice president of R&D at Boston Scientific, said in his keynote, the burden of chronic disease is increasing, so there needs to be a shift of focus from acute transactional care to earlier disease detection and monitoring. Solutions must be population-centered, understanding clinical needs while responding to the voice of the consumer, which is not just the patient but also the provider, payer and organizational system. These are key to driving a shared vision among all stakeholders.

Through collaboration, we can speed innovation, allowing us to realize the full potential of medical devices and technology on improving health and wellness.

Caroline Yang, M.D., is a resident physician in internal medicine at Brown with an interest in the intersection of medicine, health policy and innovation. Her clinical insight and understanding of the business of medicine gives her unique perspective on the exciting advances within medical practice and the healthcare industry.

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