Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Healthcare optimized: The role of robots post-COVID

One of the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be a shift to automation and telemedicine.

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It would be difficult to overestimate the impact COVID-19 appears to be having on the automation sector. No where will the change be more apparent than in healthcare, where a major transition to automation has long been in the offing.

What would have been a slower easing in has, in light of overstressed capacity in some areas of healthcare (and an eerie diminishment of demand in others), as well as a complete reorientation of consumer expectations in the pandemic era, set the stage for a jarring transformation.

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Robotics Tomorrow, an industry trade publication, picked up on the trend early: 

Major hospitals have deployed specialized robot nurses with remote patient monitoring tech so that doctors can keep an eye on people from afar. Other hospitals, along with grocery stores, restaurants and major retailers, have adopted robot cleaners that use UV-based tools to destroy bacteria and viruses. 

Add to that the massive adoption of telemedicine as an avoidance strategy to mitigate infection and the stage is now set for a new paradigm of healthcare in which robots and remote healing via in-home robotic devices and data trackers, along with in-hospital telemedicine and delivery robots, reorient longstanding protocols to minimize person-to-person contact.

"The entire healthcare system has been under an enormous amount of stress this year," Dr. Eric Dusseux tells me, "and for the year ahead we're already seeing the interest and conversations from healthcare providers around realigning on their ambition, goals, and strategies to improve functionalities within their facilities and quality of care for better patient outcomes across all practices. Technology and new solutions will play a huge part in reaching these goals for the future."

Dr. Dusseux heads BIONIK Labs, a company focusing on rehabilitation with data-driven, robotic assisted therapy systems that transform neurorecovery. He points out that from a technological perspective the timing has been ripe for a rethink about how to collect and use data for more effective healing, much of it centered around automation.

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"Patient data, A.I., and machine learning are bridging the communication gap between hospital executives, physicians, outpatient facilities, and patients themselves, allowing medtech companies like BIONIK to share insights with hospital C-suites and the therapists, using real world evidence to allow them to make informed decisions. Telemedicine, benefitting of improved reimbursement by payers during the pandemic, and connected robotic devices have emerged as fundamental tools in how we access and review patient data, including remote patient monitoring through wearable devices, implanted medical devices, and home therapy robotic devices, constituting new ways to engage and empower patients."

The interesting thing is that the forced reevaluation of systems and protocols during COVID is bleeding over into a general reevaluation of automation in healthcare for the longterm. As I wrote in Octoberrobots can help health systems increase efficiency and enhance care while protecting patients and staff by eliminating contact points between them. Hospitals are littered with opportunities for smart automation, from front desks to operating rooms to outpatient settings. Companies like BIONIK, which focuses on rehabilitation, and others like Diligent Robotics, which makes a helper robot called Moxi that can pick up the slack for hospital staff, are keenly aware of the opportunities.

"The processing and analysis of data is one of the areas where hospitals and healthcare facilities can most effectively automate," says Dr. Dusseux. "Traditionally, healthcare staff had to sit and record patient results on a clipboard or computer; but now, healthcare networks can connect their patient-facing medical devices to the cloud so that patient progress can be automatically and instantly tracked. As this data is automatically generated and recorded, it is less biased than data collected by human doctors, making it more appropriate for decision making and recommendations. The data can then be used in a facility or network to make informed decisions in real time, spot room for progress and inefficiencies, and compare facilities versus the ones which have best practices, enabling managers and executives to manage, train and adapt their resources accordingly."

During an earlier exchange with Dr. Dusseux, he identified the reluctance of hospital CFOs and administrators to invest in emerging technology as one of the single greatest obstacles to the use of robotics and automation in healthcare networks. COVID has helped to chip away at that resistance, however. As a result, the new face of patient care may not be entirely human.