The benefits of medical robots and AI technology are proving to be undeniable, so how does this digital transformation look in the region’s medical sector?
The healthcare sector, long a bastion of human touch and advancement, stands on the precipice of a technological revolution.
Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are not only redefining the sector’s future but also promising to elevate the quality of patient care and treatment.
At the heart of this transformation is a collaboration between a human and a machine, with AI and robots taking on an ever-expanding role in a myriad of medical processes.
Much like the rest of the world, the Gulf region’s digital innovations are pioneering changes in patient care, elevating service standards and enhancing health outcomes.
Its emergence: Where it all started
First introduced in the 1980s, robots in healthcare were designed to assist surgeries using robotic arm mechanisms. As the years progressed, the infusion of AI-driven computer vision and data analysis have revolutionised these medical robots, broadening their scope within various areas.
“Contrary to what a lot of people think, AI, robotics and medicine have been there for a long time. They are only now being given a lot of attention because normal people are starting to use AI and benefit from them,” Ahmed Mahmoud, an Egyptian medical resident in Qatar told Doha News.
In today’s world, robots have transcended their primary role in surgeries and are now integral in clinical environments, aiding healthcare professionals and augmenting patient care.
In an interview with John Cabibihan, Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Qatar University, the expert explained that during the Covid-19 outbreak, several facilities in Qatar incorporated robots to execute a plethora of tasks to minimise human exposure to the virus.
“One such example would be the use of robotics to disinfect areas with a high level of virus exposure. These robots are increasingly advocated as a simple solution for the immediate disinfection of rooms by using ultraviolet (UV),” he told Doha News.
As such, the ability of medical robotics in enhancing workflows and mitigating risks is invaluable. They are capable of independently sanitising and preparing patient rooms, which is especially crucial in contagious disease units, and can be controlled through a remote control. Some also have built-in cameras to help the operator scan the room.
Meanwhile, in research labs, the application of robotics and automation has also become predominant. In many countries, the robotics undertake manual, repetitive and high-volume activities, allowing scientists and technicians to concentrate on more nuanced, discovery-oriented tasks.
“They make work simply more efficient. Though it has been used for years abroad, I think Qatar and GCC countries as a whole are also hopping on the technology. You can sense that with the several seminars that the country holds, introductory workshops, and even in some hospitals with robotic surgery,” Mahmoud added.
The concept of using robotics in surgical procedures was first envisioned in 1967.
However, it remained a distant dream for nearly three decades until research entities established by the US defence department began creating the initial surgical robots capable of performing diverse tasks. In their early stages, these robots were deployed in wartime scenarios on the frontlines.
Whereas today, the fastest-growing area in healthcare robotics is surgery. The objective is to augment human abilities and surpass the inherent constraints of human surgeons in surgical procedures.
Qatar’s surgical robotics debut
In Qatar, Sidra Medicine is in the lead when it comes to such an approach. For years, the hospital has been working on implementing the technology within its programmes.
In 2018, Sidra introduced a pediatric robotic surgery programme with the aim of executing advanced procedures and educating its pediatric surgeons in the most up-to-date methods.
In the same year, Qatari physician, Dr. Aisha Ahmad Yousuf successfully operated the first robotic hysterectomy surgery in the hospital.
This year, a team of doctors at Hamad Medical Corporation performed a successful robotic sleeve gastrectomy surgery for a middle-aged woman with a rare condition.
Meanwhile, the newly opened The View Hospital, has also debuted its first robotic surgery in Qatar’s private health sector.
According to reports, approximately 80,000 individuals lose their lives annually due to incorrect disease diagnoses.
Numerous instances involving incomplete information have historically resulted in significant errors.
Given AI’s general minimalism to such inaccuracies, it possesses the ability to rapidly forecast and identify illnesses. The application of AI has been extensively investigated, particularly in the realm of cancer detection, where early identification and anticipation are extremely significant.
Thus, the exponential growth of AI and robotics holds the promise to reshape certain aspects within healthcare.
“As technological advancements continue, robots are anticipated to operate with even greater autonomy, undertaking certain responsibilities completely on their own,” Mahmoud told Doha News.
“This shift will allow healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses to dedicate more of their time to direct patient interaction and care,” he added.
Several tech giants are also seizing the opportunity to leverage AI and robotics in refining healthcare frameworks. For instance, Google is partnering with healthcare networks to craft predictive models.
With an array of tech-forward companies stepping into the arena, the role of AI and robotics in healthcare appears to be set to thrive, redefining the way the sector operates.
Room for error
While robotics in healthcare provide numerous advantages, they are not without risks, including mechanical errors that can be fatal.
One significant limitation is their restricted ability for customisation. Given that every patient has different needs, tailored healthcare solutions are vital, and the technology’s adaptation to such demands is yet to be optimal.
Research has also documented several adverse outcomes in robotic surgery, from injuries to deaths due to equipment malfunctions. In a field where one small error can cost a life, such risks are crucial and cannot be overlooked.
Beyond these concerns, the potential for medical-legal issues exists. Just as with other computer systems, surgical robots can be vulnerable to viruses, possibly leading to situations where they do not respond correctly to a surgeon’s instructions.
So where does this leave the medical sector?
The future is digital
While the integration of robotics in healthcare is still in its early stages, it presents vast opportunities, particularly for the ever expanding and changing GCC region.
The profound impact of AI in fields such as drug discovery, disease diagnosis, digital consultations, robotic surgeries, remote patient monitoring, and epidemic prediction are proving undeniable. However, extensive efforts are required to ensure errors are minimised despite these advantages.
“The GCC region, in particular, should invest further in research and implementation to guarantee that this digital transformation is not only seamless but also beneficial for all involved,” Mahmoud told Doha News.