Having to cope with the strain of COVID on an already fragile healthcare system, a few hospitals in the Western Cape have been introducing robotics for specialised tasks – but are they worth the hype?
Robotics was able to fill an unprecedented need during the COVID pandemic – the ability to remotely conduct ward rounds from remote locations. Tygerberg Hospital made use of ‘Quintin’, a robot that is essentially a tablet on a mobile stand that allows users to remotely communicate and inspect the area, but it can’t physically interact with its environment.
Robotics offers greater surgical precision, which may translate into reduced healthcare load. IOL reported that the provincial Department of Health plans to use a pair of new robotic surgery machines installed at the Groote Schuur and Tygerberg hospitals to fast-track surgeries and address the province’s surgical backlogs caused by COVID. These robotic surgery units will be used for procedures on colorectal, liver, prostate, kidney and bladder cancers, and women with severe endometriosis. In the province’s private sector, Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital also makes use of robotic-assisted surgery.
Robotic surgery has a number of advantages. The small robotic arms allow for smaller incisions and faster recovery times, reducing the strain on hospitals. A liver resection that would have a patient in hospital for a week can be reduced to one or two days with robotic surgery. More complex surgery becomes possible, eg in difficult to access areas or in patients with obesity. Robotic surgery allows surgeons to be off their feet, easing an extremely fatiguing job, and the software automatically compensates for any tremor in the surgeon’s hands.
However, robotic surgery still has drawbacks – chief among them is cost and the need to have trained personnel to operate them. There is also some latency between the surgeon’s hands movements and the corresponding movement of the robot, leading to possible errors. Shorting of the electrical current running through the robotic arms can also cause burns to the patient’s tissue, and there is also the possibility of nerve compression injuries due to the positioning of the patient. Furthermore, operator errors, especially when operators are inexperienced or robotic surgery is performed in lower volumes, is always a possibility.
Robotics have promising applications in sanitation – they can easily disinfect areas using UV light, for example – and can also assist nurses with certain tasks, such as making a 3D vein map prior to a venipuncture. Some robots can even assist the elderly, conversing with them and can perform simple tasks like calling a nurse. Other applications include the much simpler technology of exoskeletons, a wearable frame which amplify users’ strength (though nowhere near that of the fictional Iron Man) and are useful in rehabilitation and for enhancing mobility in the elderly. Other applications include increasing strength of care staff for assisting patients, freeing up other staff.
Some exoskeletons are even purely mechanical, merely readjusting loads without any sophisticated electronics or motors. Yet even these are prohibitively expensive: the Phoenix Medical Exoskeleton goes for about US$30 000 each.
While promising, robotic systems are at present still hugely expensive, limited in function and can only assist with a small fraction of the tasks that healthcare workers perform. Even if the cost could be reduced enough to help ease healthcare worker burden in South Africa to help, that still leaves the problem of enough experienced and motivated healthcare workers, beds and neglected rural areas.