PETRA: the potential of medical robots

Medical robotics is rapidly advancing. Are medical robots with human-like characteristics about to change the way we diagnose health conditions?


Robots are changing our everyday lives

Robots that we can interact with have been a staple of science fiction and childhood dreams for more than a century. But human-like ‘droids’ that can make autonomous choices and display emotion and empathy – like Star Wars’ C-3P0 – are still reserved to our imagination.

However, thanks to advances in technology, digital sensors, and artificial intelligence (AI), many ‘faceless’ robots – programmable devices that automatically perform complex and often repetitive tasks – are already infiltrating almost every aspect of our daily lives.

As humans, we want to interact and communicate with others – which is leading to a rise in so-called ‘social robots’. For example, many of us already regularly engage with voice-activated AI systems like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant.

Personal service robots – such as vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers – can help us with our household chores. Between 2015 and 2018, 35 million of these were sold worldwide – and 1.5 million of these had social robot characteristics [1].

As technologies become increasingly powerful and more ‘human-like’, robots are also starting to impact on many other areas of our lives – including our healthcare. 

DID YOU KNOW?

35M

personal service robots sold between 2015-2018 – 1.5 million had social robot characteristics [1].

20

thousand surgeries have been performed by the da Vinci Surgical System [2].

3

medical conditions can be diagnosed by PETRA, the world’s first health-screening robot.

Petra

How can robots help improve healthcare?

AI and robotics are increasingly becoming a part of our healthcare systems, transforming the way that we prevent, diagnose and treat different illnesses – as well as improving patient care. For example, medical robots can help by relieving highly-skilled healthcare professionals from routine tasks. They can also perform highly accurate surgery, improve patient rehabilitation or target medicines specifically to where they are needed inside the body.

Surgeons are already routinely using robotics to help them to operate with greater precision – meaning less pain and faster healing for patients. In 2000, the da Vinci Surgical System became the first robotic medical device to gain approval. Since then, it has performed more than 20,000 surgeries [2]

And this is just the beginning. Other types of medical robots are also set to join our hospital workforce. Many will take on the burden of time-consuming, repetitive tasks that are currently carried out by nurses, such as taking blood or recording vital statistics – freeing up their time to deal with issues that require human communication skills and empathy. 

We may also employ disinfection robots that can obliterate microorganisms using ultraviolet rays, protecting patients from hospital-acquired infections. A US hospital reported a 70% drop in C.difficile in its intensive care unit through the use of one such device [3].

Other robotic advancements will help improve the lives of patients outside of the hospital. These include robotic prosthetics – or devices such as ‘exoskeletons’ that can help correct malformations or with rehabilitating patients after a brain or spinal cord injury, helping them to walk again. Or robot companions who can visit people at home – carrying out routine health check-ups and helping to combat loneliness.

And tiny medical robots – or ‘nanobots’ – may also be sent to work inside our bodies. Scientists are developing these microscopic robots to target drugs or other treatments to where they are needed in the body, increasing their effectiveness and reducing the risk of unwanted side effects.

But the area of healthcare where robots can perhaps offer the most transformative potential is applying the power of AI in diagnostics. Robotic systems now exist that can diagnose medical conditions with a huge degree of accuracy. Recently, evidence shows that AI is as effective as humans in the diagnosis of various medical conditions – and in some cases, more effective [4].

These medical robots offer huge opportunities for increasing people’s access to healthcare services.

PETRA: the world’s first health-screening robot

Picture a situation. You’re concerned about your health, but you didn't go to your doctor yet. Perhaps you’ve been putting it off as you’re worried about wasting their time – or you may feel embarrassed to share your problems or fear being judged.

But what if there was another option – interacting with a robot at your local pharmacy, shopping mall, airport or train station to find out if you have an undiagnosed illness?  It could then suggest what you can do next – such as helping you to book a doctor’s appointment directly or advising what steps you can take to improve your health.

By collaborating with the technology company Furhat Robotics, we aimed to develop a solution, iterate, make a proof-of-concept and launch PETRA, which stands for Prescreening Experience Through Robot Assessment in a commercial, real-life setting.

PETRA can currently screen for three different health conditions – hypothyroidism, alcoholism or pre-diabetes. She has been deliberately designed to look, feel and act more ‘human’. She has a warm personality – encouraging people to share information about their personal habits and health concerns.

INTERVIEW: Samer Al Moubayed & Petra Sandholm

Interview partners

  • Samer Al Moubayed – CEO of Furhat Robotics
  • Petra Sandholm – Project Manager - Merck AB, a Subsidiary of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany and the Digital Business Innovation Lab at Epicenter in Sweden    

Why Petra? What was the reason for that invention?

 

[Petra]: Our business innovation lab at Epicenter in Stockholm started to look at how to increase the awareness around three of the most common diseases in the world: hypothyroidism, alcoholism and pre-diabetes. We realized that there is a huge amount of self-evaluation tests available online, and we started to discuss on how we could increase the accessibility to these tests for more people to take action and responsibility over their own health. But also to add a component of quality, as many online self-tests are not always scientifically grounded. After experiencing how people interacted with the robot in different environments, we realized that it brings a lot of attention and curiosity. So, together with Furhat Robotics, we started building PETRA.

[Samer]: Furhat is working on social robots that can talk to people. That comes from the idea that we mostly interact with technology though our smartphones or tablets, and that’s a very different form of communication compared to talking to a human. We identified with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany that talking about health-related issues is not easy and that engaging with a human, who gives you the sense of care, trust and the freedom to express yourself is necessary to break this barrier. Therefore, social robots can be a great opportunity. We wanted to make people more aware of these conditions by having Petra available in public spaces.

 

Which diseases can Petra already screen for? How early on the disease development can the condition be screened?

 

[Petra]: In the future we would like her to be able to screen for multiple diseases, like a human doctor. PETRA is able to screen for the diseases as early as when the first symptoms are noticeable.

How does the disease screening from Petra work? What’s the process behind it?

 

[Petra]: PETRA follows a medically approved script. She asks a set of questions to the patient and, depending on the number of yes and no’s, she’ll evaluate the risk the patient has on developing a certain medical condition.

Which other types of robot does Furhat Robotics offer?

 

[Samer]: Furhat is currently working on several very different markets. Some examples are the development of robot travel assistants in airports and train stations, to help travelers knowing if the trains are delayed or which gate should they go to. Here we work with Deutsche Bahn and Frankfurt Airport. Another project is using robots for performing Job interviews. The main advantage of that is that unlike humans, robots are unbiased an have no prejudices. So, you can get unbiased data from candidates. 

 

How scalable is it? Where do you see Petra being used?

 

[Samer]: Wherever there are people, robots can play a role. It can be anywhere, in schools helping with homework, in the HR department, in the Universities and Shopping malls. It’s a similar situation with computers - about 20 years ago, they were exclusive to companies and Universities, and no one saw the applications they could have in other settings. In 30 years, we think robots will be everywhere. 

[Petra]: We are already working together with Furhat Robotics and other companies to translate PETRA in to several languages to be able to have her support and help people all over the world. In the future we hope to have her available for everyone out in the public, in pharmacies, shopping malls, airports and train stations.

What do you think is the most exciting thing about your work?

 

[Samer]: Well, we’re building robots! It’s a dream that humanity has had for more than 100 years. Most people alive today have seen robots in books and movies. It’s a very big part of humanity, and we’ve been dreaming about it for many years. It’s great being in the driver seat of this story and making the dream come true.

[Petra]: The PETRA project with Furhat has been one-of-a-kind, to be able to be a part of something completely new, a project that could change the view of the healthcare business forever and how to use digitalization to ease people’s life is something I will always be proud of.

What’s your vision for the future of Healthcare? Where could robots fit in that scenario?

 

[Samer]: Robots have a very exciting potential in the development of technology, especially on increasing people’s access to it. To have robots in clinics and have robots that can screen you, it can be an incredibly powerful thing. It’s also a great tool to focus on prevention, whereas the biggest part of healthcare nowadays is focused on treatment, we can focus on prevention and awareness. Talking to a robot is a very natural way of interacting with technology. You don’t have to learn any new technologies or download a new app, you can just interact with it in a very natural way. With social robots, people are more willing to share information and act as if they’re talking to humans.

[Petra]: In the future I hope to see PETRA and other digital/AI solutions in healthcare all over the world. We think that everyone has the right to healthcare, and we would like to see robots or digital solutions in countries or cities where people don’t have easy access to healthcare.

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