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The need for automation in healthcare

With wide applicability and the many time and cost savings they can bring, robots have been steadily integrated into healthcare over the last decade

There is no question that technology has revolutionised healthcare across the developed world, from now standard equipment such as stethoscopes and vital signs monitors to functional MRI scanners and 3D tissue bioprinting.

Through systematically addressing key shortcomings in our health service, these advances have undoubtedly improved the quality and length of our lives. However, the pandemic has introduced new pressures on our healthcare system. The NHS has been operating at near capacity for most of the last year, with a chronic shortage of hospital beds and a severe backlog of patients awaiting treatment.

Consequently, we must look to newer technologies to help alleviate pressures on medical staff and adapt and improve our health services to bring them into a post-pandemic 21st century.

One of the greatest facilitators of this technological shift is, and will continue to be, robotics. With wide applicability and the many time and cost savings they can bring, robots have been steadily integrated into healthcare over the last decade. However, in light of the pressures COVID-19 has brought to the sector, the drive to automate has been expedited.

Robotics are the future

With the stage set, let us consider how robotics fits into our future healthcare agenda. Robots are already used for a variety of functions across a broad range of health services. Most people are familiar with their use in surgeries, with the first documented robot-assisted surgical procedure being a neurosurgical biopsy in 1985. These robots allow doctors to conduct surgery through tiny incisions rather than traditionally larger ones.

More recently, robots have been increasingly used as medical assistants to help monitor patient vitals and alert nurses when a human presence is needed. This has allowed for the monitoring of several patients at once with less staffing requirements than before. Robots even help manage storerooms and transport supplies.

While robotics has clearly changed the face of healthcare, the recent pandemic has highlighted supply chain failings within the health system when it is faced with disruption of such magnitude. Namely, the task of population-scale testing and vaccination has stretched the NHS to its limit.

Fortunately, the use of robotics in medicine has been adapted to provide a solution. At Salient Bio, for example, we have developed a robotics-driven diagnostics workflow which has revolutionised our ability to run mass PCR-based tests.

Our workflow is completed in four stages, with robots used to fully automate the analysis process. In fact, the only manual part of the process is the preparation of the samples by taking the tests out of the boxes and removing the swabs from the tubes. After this, from transferring samples into an automatable format through 3D printing hardware, to extraction of RNA from the samples and plate prep for the thermocycling PCR analysis, every subsequent stage is carried out by robots.

Faster, better, stronger

There are three core aspects of robotics which make implementing it into healthcare attractive. These are precision, speed and efficiency. Indeed, the removal of human error can pay dividends in the long term. It has been estimated that human error is the second most common cause of system failure, accounting for 22% of all incidents.

Healthcare is no different, and these three qualities are applicable to all the medical processes robots are utilised in, making the procedures safer and less costly for patients and relieving medical personnel from routine tasks.

When considering the vast population-scale testing the UK must carry out, the accuracy and efficiency of robotics really comes to the fore. At Salient Bio, cutting-edge liquid-handling robots provide the pace needed to extend our testing capacity by conducting around 40,000 pipetting motions per run during RNA extraction.

The platform is also open and modular, meaning as each step in the process is completed, another machine starts the second step and so on. Meanwhile, the first machine begins work on a second batch. This means the system can process multiple batches at once.

Crucially, the efficiency robotics afford testing has given us the ability to provide mass-scale proactive diagnoses for all conditions it is applied to, facilitating early intervention and ultimately saving lives.

The power of versatility

While the performance of robots can undoubtedly eclipse that of a human in these areas, their true value lies in their vast applicability. They are able to work in at least one role in nearly any discipline in almost every sector. According to Ohio University, the top four industries utilising robotics after healthcare are agriculture, food preparation, manufacturing and the military.

This versatility does not begin and end with the number of sectors robots can turn their non-human hands to, which is also apparent within those sectors as well. When used for PCR-based testing, for example, the number of medical conditions robots can aid testing for is extensive. This highlights the bright future of these machines in diagnostics as a whole.

Following the pandemic we plan to pivot our supply chain to a wide array of medical conditions, including sepsis, which costs the UK government up to £15.6bn each year in medical treatment. Earlier diagnosis facilitated by robotics would cut billions from this figure as sepsis, like many medical conditions, is far easier to treat in the early stages.

All these benefits come with no additional labour costs, allowing medical staff to focus their efforts where those human resources are truly needed.

Long-term safety for everyone

If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that preparation is key. Although no one could have predicted a global pandemic, now that we are aware of the dangers a crisis such as this brings, we are better able to build resilience into operations moving forward. As we have already discussed, future proofing healthcare, with technologies such as robotics, is important. However, the use of these technologies should not be confined to high-income countries.

In fact, the benefits technology like robotics can bring to healthcare are far greater, relatively speaking, for lower income countries. This is why we see a future for robotic testing as a basis of an innovative Next Generation Sequencing offering. The cost-efficiency and speed of this form of testing would lend itself well to microbiome-based health tracking.

This would allow medical professionals to monitor entire populations, in both high- and low-income countries, and catch medical conditions early to facilitate proactive intervention. With the NHS left with a huge backlog due to COVID-19 and illnesses such as respiratory tract infections, diarrhoeal diseases, malaria and tuberculosis representing over 90% of deaths in the developing world, revolutionising diagnostic platforms with robotics provides the greatest hope for a healthier future for all.

Investing in the future

Healthcare has been on the ‘front line’ of the battle against COVID-19 and the insights learnt from the challenges of this crisis are invaluable in shaping how we move forward. A silver lining of the pandemic is that it occurred during a technological boom in cutting edge automation.

Robotics offer a real, actionable solution to several core issues the healthcare sector now faces. It is crucial that providers recognise this opportunity and choose to invest in a long-term vision of healthcare that caters to all and can readily accommodate similar crises in the future.

Miles Priestman is co-founder of Salient Bio

26th May 2021

Miles Priestman is co-founder of Salient Bio

26th May 2021

From: Healthcare

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