Until a couple of decades ago, robots featured only in science fiction books, films and cartoons. Many were portrayed as rather dim-witted things, happily doing the endless menial and mechanical tasks that we humans would prefer not to do. Otherwise they were portrayed as gods, possessing intelligence that common mortals could not comprehend.
More recently, fuelled by the entertainment industry, things started to change in the public imagination. To mention just one example, the film Star Wars was instrumental to give robots a brain to think with, not to mention a heart to bring them closer to us.
Yet, robots remained the stuff of fiction, not reality. Today, however, this is no longer the case. R2D2 and C3PO are already here.
At present, we are in the process of installing a Robotic Surgery System at Mater Dei Hospital’s operating theatre.
Every year, the system will perform tens of interventions dealing initially with prostate cancer and urinary blockages and eventually gynaecology, ear, nose and throat and others. In the near future, it will have the capacity to do much more.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Will I go under the knife if I see a robot holding it? Hell no. Relax, that’s not the way it will work.
The surgeon’s control and judgement will remain absolute. It’s just that robots will help her/him to do much more and much less.
Let me explain. Traditional surgery entailed incisions and opening up here and there.
It was by definition invasive, traumatic on the body – frequently disrupting its general functions – inflicting pain and leaving scars.
The robots we’ll be installing, on the other hand, will go about their business completely differently. Their surgical assistance is minimally invasive and requires smaller incisions.
In total we’ll be spending €17 million in robotics. Yet we will be doing so without spending more than weare today
It results in less post-surgery pain, less scarring, quicker recovery and better cosmetic results.
The technology enhances precision, flexibility and control during the operation and allows the surgeon to visualise the entire journey through the body like never before. It is truly revolutionary. These are the benefits to the patients and surgeons. Then, there are the benefits to society and the economy. Less intrusive and disruptive surgery means shorter hospital stays, a quicker return to work and normal life, less blood transfusions and shorter follow-ups.
Our robots will not be confined to operating theatres. Far from it.
Indeed, Mario, our first robot, is already on the job distributing and administering medicines more safely, efficiently and less prone to errors than ever before.
He’ll soon be joined by others.
Now we’re going further, much further. Our robots will start telling which drugs interact negatively with others and disseminate that information through the system.
They will take medicines received in bulk, repackage them in the right doses and send them to be administered to the right patient through Mater Dei’s chutes. Interfacing bar coding will ensure that the risk of a patient receiving an-other’s medicine by human mistake will be dramatically reduced.
Again, beyond these massive benefits to patients, there is another, equally massive one, to society and to public funds.
Systemic misplacement and wastage will be identified and controlled like never before.
Medicine overstocking and understocking will be reduced because we’ll be forecasting purchases from real usage. Ditto for expired medicines.
In total we’ll be spending €17 million in robotics. Yet we will be doing so without spending more than we are today. Through an innovative financial system we devised, the concessionaire will get paid only and exclusively from the savings generated by the robots.
In other words, we do have a vision and an ambitious one. But our feet are firmly rooted to the ground.
The timelines are clear as well.
Our three-year programme kicked off in 2018. This year we’re studying implementation in each ward at MDH and SAMOC. We are ordering, and expect to receive, 850 pieces of equipment (another four robots arrived last week).
In 2020, we will be implementing the system, ward by ward.
This paradigm shift towards robotic technology will draw together the entire health system, seamlessly and clearly integrating information between the private and public sectors, improving the administration of the system of free medicines and the execution of our POYC programme. Above all, both medical staff and patients will enter a new world in which clarity, finally, is the new law of the land.
I have a small confession to make. My fear is that one day they will build a robot to do a politician’s job, rendering me unemployed.
But, I’m hopeful. I bet they won’t find the artificial intelligence required to duplicate a human politician!
Chris Fearne is Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Health.