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5 ways robots are changing our healthcare

With a leading robotics research hub in the city, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, partnering with local hospitals, Bristol is at the cutting-edge of robotics in healthcare.


1. Helping hand

Months before the pandemic, North Bristol NHS Trust partnered with Bristol Robotics Lab to research how socially assistive robots can help improve patient care. It will look at how personalised robots could help patients recover from surgery, and help with eating, drinking and exercising. A year ago, Bristol Robotics Lab developed a ‘socially intelligent’ robot fitness coach – Pepper they’re called – designed to guide people through an exercise regime (e.g. running on a treadmill) while also giving motivational voice prompts. The same technology, which could help patients with mobility issues, is undergoing testing to ensure it’s safe for a clinical environment. Helping hand from Pepper?

2. Dr. Bot, off you go!

Over a decade ago, Southmead Hospital’s Urology Team was one of the first hospitals to purchase a robot – Da Vinci – to conduct cancer surgery. The robot treated prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men. The surgery has been more accurate, less invasive, caused less blood loss, and even reduced hospital stays from three days to one on average, according to the hospital. More recently this year, Southmead bought a second robot to conduct other types of cancer surgeries. The future hope is that they would conduct surgeries entirely on their own. But can robots be trusted to do the job? For now, though, Dr. Da Vinci is confident he’s cracked the code.

3. Lifting spirits

Using similar technology to Pepper, talking robots that are also able to learn people’s interests can improve mental health and even reduce loneliness, an international trial funded by the European Commission and Japanese Government recently found. Some UK care homes are already looking to integrate talking robots into their care homes to lift residents’ spirits during lonelier times when staff are too stretched to keep residents company. While talking robots are far from the perfect solution, they could help society meet the needs of an ageing population, while alleviating the pressure from our overworked and understaffed social care sector.

4. Moving muscles

In September, a pioneering Bristol University research project received £6m of government funding to help restore muscular strength in patients who, for example, had suffered a stroke.

The project is one of only six benefitting from a £32m government investment in healthcare technology. Current treatments for loss of muscular strength and function rely on external devices, which can cause damage to body tissues and discomfort. The emPOWER project, which launches early next year, asks: can implanted robotic artificial muscles replace or work alongside our own muscles to restore natural body function? If proven, it could improve the quality of life of sufferers of degeneratives diseases, and restore their confidence and independence.

5. Virtual connections

During this pandemic, Nightingale Hospital Bristol set up family liaison robots ready for when the hospital is used for Covid-19 patients. The remote-controlled telepresence robots allow relatives to talk to and see their loved ones from the ICU at the hospital. With the risk of cross infection, the technology helps families connect at a time when they can’t be in the same room. But still, concerns about robots replacing humans, accountability, and even bots taking over the planet remain. It’s more about “freeing up [staff] time to focus on what humans do best – caring, listening and responding”, Tim Whittlestone from North Bristol NHS Trust says.

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