When I was a presenter on the BBC‘s flagship science show, Tomorrow’s World, in the 1990s, medical robots were a favourite story.
We’d often report that, one day, we’d all be looked after by whizzy robot doctors and nurses, and watched over by sensors dotted about the home that could tell if we were getting ill.
And if we did need to speak to a real medic, one could appear, magically, on a TV screen in our own living room. Just imagine!
It was all bewitching, given the mundane reality, back then, of sitting in your GP waiting room on a Wednesday morning, having waited weeks for that ten-minute slot.
And after every segment on these futuristic, time-saving, life-enhancing health technologies, we would always solemnly tell viewers that these marvels would be with us in ‘three to five years’.
When I was a presenter on the BBC’s flagship science show, Tomorrow’s World, in the 1990s, medical robots were a favourite story, writes VIVIENNE PARRY
But they never seemed to materialise. Far from being everywhere, even a few years back medical tech was so unusual it still made headlines.
Just days after the 2019 General Election, Health Secretary Matt Hancock set out his vision for a ‘digital NHS’.
He promised the newly elected Government would ‘double down on the tech agenda and bring the NHS into the 21st Century’. To many, including me, his plan seemed ambitious.
After all, the NHS didn’t have a great track record, spending £10 billion between 2002 and 2011 on a failed attempt of making patient records electronic.
But then Covid came along and changed everything as our healthcare system underwent a radical technological overhaul.
The use of virtual consultations has soared, as GPs worked out how to treat patients without being in the same room.
The technology to make these things happen had already been in common use but it was never put to NHS use. The pandemic forced their hand. There was no other choice – it was shape up, or die (or rather, we would).
But the tech revolution hasn’t ended with Skype, Zoom and emails. Thanks to this crisis, we’re now closer than ever to seeing the appearance of robots in our hospitals. Not in ‘three to five years’. Now.
Take the disinfectant spraying, scampering dog-like robot invented by Prof Robert Richardson.
These could soon be seen deployed in public spaces and clinics. This four-legged friend is loaded with sensors and run by artificial intelligence that can recognise objects needing cleaning, such as handles or armrests.
It can identify what’s what very rapidly – so no chance of spraying someone slumbering on a bench.
It means that no human has to do this potentially dangerous job. Similar robots are being created in Singapore to enforce social distancing in parks. They can ‘see’ if people are too close together, run after them and issue a warning.
Interestingly, prior to Covid, Prof Richardson’s team was developing robots that could sneak out at night to repair holes in the road or faulty cables. His vision for the future is a ‘self-repairing city’, made possible by robots.
Pictured: A Sterilight UVC robot which has been used to disinfect high-touch indoor spaces
The UK is good at making robots, and a £23 million National Robotarium development facility is opening next year at Heriot-Watt University near Edinburgh. Up for development are drones that can deliver medicines and robot assisted living for the elderly.
Some robots are already used in care homes – one looks like a really cute baby seal. Residents who are not allowed pets find stroking these robots, which respond by ‘purring’ when they are touched, comforting.
A 2019 study from the University of Exeter found ‘robopets’ reduced loneliness and agitation in care home residents who used them.
Other technological advancements are less eye-catching but, arguably, more important. Wearable technology is already being used to monitor heart health and artificial intelligence can assess breast scans and biopsies just as accurately as a human, prioritising those most likely to be cancer.
Intriguingly, it’s also being used to help young people with cystic fibrosis. Patients with the genetic disorder suffer from lungs clogged with mucus that leave them vulnerable to infection.
Regular monitoring at hospital is vital to spot these infections early but travelling to a clinic – and being exposed to all the bugs on public transport – can pose a risk. And now, there’s the added risk of hospital Covid.
In the new initiative, Project Breathe, volunteers had home testing equipment that beamed results to an artificial intelligence app on their phones, which in turn could predict an infection flare-up before it got bad. Thousands of CF patients use the tech today.
Many reading this will be saying: ‘I don’t want a video call with a robot, I want to see a real person.’
But the world will need 80 million healthcare professionals by 2030. That’s 40 million more than are currently in health systems worldwide and it is predicted that there will be an 18 million shortfall.
As we’ve seen, our NHS was already at breaking point even before Covid. We need a solution – and trying to poach doctors from other countries is not sustainable, or ethical. I’m not suggesting a shiny robot future where we do away with doctors and nurses. Far from it.
We need to use technology to help doctors and nurses, so they can concentrate on us, not the drudge or the admin.
Scientists are working to develop more of these creative solutions to the health problems we face in the future, and the ones Covid has brought to the foreground.
A future where our NHS becomes more efficient thanks to robots, artificial intelligence and other technologies is just around the corner.
And no, it won’t be three to five years.