How Medical Robots Will Help Treat Patients in Future Outbreaks

IEEE Spectrum

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Nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers form the front line in the fight against pandemics. Not only are they needed to treat sick patients, but they also put themselves at high risk of contracting the disease themselves. In the COVID-19 outbreak, thousands of doctors and nurses have fallen ill, and hundreds have died. These risks become even more hazardous when shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) leave healthcare workers no alternative but to reuse or improvise PPE.

The interest in using robotics to help combat the COVID-19 outbreak has been huge, and for good reason: Having more robots implies less person-to-person contact, which means fewer healthcare workers get sick. This also reduces community transmission, while consuming fewer supplies of PPE. At the same time, the use of telemedicine to allow doctors and nurses to communicate with patients without the risk of infection is rising sharply. And although robots have so far not been physically interacting with patients, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a future in which this could be possible.

In this article, we ask the question: How can robots minimize exposure of healthcare workers to patients throughout the entire treatment process? Over the last several years, our research in the Intelligent Motion Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has built and tested prototype systems to explore the technical feasibility, human factors, and economic viability of robot use in patient care, and here we’ll share some of our insights and lessons learned.

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