Atin Roy
Health & Wellness, Digital Transformation
Cobots: The Rise of the Health Companion

In the 2014 Disney movie, Big Hero 6, the protagonist Hiro Hamada meets Baymax, a personal healthcare Robot. The inflatable, soft-spoken, teddy bear-like android sits dormant in its charging hub till it hears or senses a need for medical attention from its owner. Once activated it can perform any of the over 10,000 medical procedures it has been pre-programmed with. In other words, Baymax was Hiro’s personal health superhero.

Despite being a work of fiction, it is easy to see the potential of this idea. The good news is that although not as anthropomorphic and cuddly as Baymax, these Cobots may have already started reinventing the world of healthcare.

What Are Cobots

Collaborative Robots or Cobots are automated systems that have been employed for years across many industries to perform pre-programmed automated tasks with an objective to enhance productivity and safety for human beings. They are called collaborative Robots as they work in collaboration with human beings and are equipped with force-feedback sensors to ensure they can’t hurt anyone.

What Are Cobots Doing in Healthcare

Contrary to the popular notion of Robots eventually replacing humans, the primary purpose of Cobots in healthcare is to act as the extension of the Healthcare Professionals (HCPs) and help them achieve more positive health outcomes for patients.

Cobots are very useful in taking the repetitive or the mundane off the shoulders of the already burdened HCPs. They have already been proven useful in administrative tasks, sample sorting in labs, as surgical aids etc. Today, there is also an increasing demand for Cobots in patient monitoring, e-prescription, billing, insurance claims, etc.

A great example of how Cobots have become a part of the modern healthcare delivery ecosystem was witnessed during the Covid19 pandemic. In 2020, a few hospitals used Cobots to disinfect beds & rooms before sending in the employees. By placing Cobots as the frontline for potentially hazardous medical functions, they were able to protect their staff from unnecessary exposure to the deadly virus.

In fact, the post-pandemic renewed interest in telehealth is also likely to aid the rise of Cobots. Visualise Baymax’s cousin – let’s call him Boymax. Boymax’s anthropomorphic shape will make it easy for it to interact with a human being, even a child. Its voice interface takes away the need to type instructions and its visual camera and sensors can pick up temperature, blood oxygen levels and other indications that may need medical assistance. Boymax may also act as a telemedicine channel through which the patient can seek medical advice from the doctor.

On the other hand, the doctor doesn’t have to worry about misinterpretation of prescription by the patient (an unwell individual may not be in the state) as he transmits the instructions directly to the Cobot. Boymax can take instructions, order medicines, help the patient take the right dose at the right time, provide timely nourishment, update the doctor in real-time and alert the doctor in case of an emergency. And perhaps even conduct an emergency procedure when time is of the essence. Simply put, in some critical cases, having Boymax could mean the difference between being alive or being severely affected, or even dead.

How Can Cobots Elevate Healthcare Brand Experiences

By introducing Cobots, healthcare & pharmaceuticals brands, particular hospitals, can enrich their brand experiences for patients, caregivers, and stakeholder.

Precision Surgery

Collaborative Robots have been assisting surgeons for years now. These may be categorised as Active Surgical Systems that have pre-programmed elements and can work autonomously, Semi Active Systems that allow for surgeon-driven elements with pre-programmed elements and Master-Slave Systems that are completely under the control of the surgeon.

The da Vinci surgical system is an example of the Master-Slave Cobot. It has Robotic arms that translate the surgeon’s hand movements into smaller and more precise actions for less invasive surgical procedures.

Cobots can help achieve higher success rates and shorter hospital stays, making surgical experiences more patient- and caregiver-friendly. Newer innovations, like the haptic glove can provide almost the same sensation to surgeons which they are used to when using their hands. This can potentially make the procedures even more precise and in turn help boost brand equity and productivity among staff.

In-Patient Monitoring

In Japan, Cobots have been used for bedside in-patient monitoring. As doctors conduct their rounds, the ‘Nurse’ Cobots follow them and present patient histories, vitals, etc., helping the doctor save precious time which may otherwise be consumed in going through charts.

Employing these Cobots can also address the acute shortage of nursing staff and can take the workload off the existing personnel, thus creating better working conditions and freeing time for one-to-one patient interactions and professional development.

Companionship for Seniors

Companionship is crucial in elderly care. Research indicates that chronic loneliness can impact older adults’ memory, physical well-being, mental health, and life expectancy. Burgeoning elderly population & the rise of nuclear family globally, along with increasing life expectancies & burden of chronic illnesses, makes providing companionship to seniors and important function that Cobots may be performing in the near future.

In elderly care, Cobots may serve two functions in the hospital context. First, making life more manageable for seniors. Second, and more importantly, provide bedside company through conversations when nurses or doctors are not around.

Post-discharge, Cobots can continue hospital-like care and patient monitoring at the patient’s residence, thereby freeing up hospital beds & infrastructure.

Illness Recovery and Support

Therapeutic uses of pets for patients hospitalized with mental illnesses and elderlies have been explored. The presence of an entity (even if non-human) psychologically helps in recovery or improvement in state of being.

We already have Voice Assistants like Alexa. Soon, Cobots will be providing medical care along with personalized conversations to patient thus aiding better mental health during illness.

Assisted Living and Mobility

Shortage of trained care workers, nurses and doctors is a global phenomenon. This makes Assisted Living, which may be needed in certain medical conditions, difficult to afford. Although still very expensive, mass production and wider adoption can help make owning Cobots affordable and fill this gap.

Assisted Mobility is yet another domain where Cobots can be extremely useful. In medical conditions like paraplegia or paralysis or congenital disorders patients are confined to their beds or wheelchairs for a long time or even for lifetime. Although wheelchairs are very useful and comparably cheap, Cobots can truly bring freedom of mobility to such patients.

Wearable Cobotic exoskeletons are being explored to help young and old patients not just walk upright again but also run and even dance. As the technology evolves, Cobotic exoskeletons have the potential to remarkably improve the quality of life of patients who face mobility challenges.

The Need for Cobot Regulation Frameworks

In 1942, renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov put down the Three Laws of Robotics which served as a theoretical framework for Robotics for many decades. However, a lot has changed since then. Robots are now very different and are everywhere, in countless forms. As Robots gain more prevalence and thinking capabilities, we need modern and relevant laws for guiding and regulating their conduct.

Cobots carry the promise of reinventing the future of healthcare. But to achieve that, we will first need to carefully define a universally accepted Cobot Regulation Framework that ensures absolute care and safety for human beings placed in Cobotic hands. Only then may we usher in the new era, where Cobots will augment medical and healthcare capabilities to the next level. And who knows, what wonderful new things we may see?

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