The future of healthcare: From robots to connected ambulances

Technology is transforming the medical field, with innovations not only addressing scale and cost, but also improving patient care, providing faster diagnoses and ultimately increasing survival rates.

By 2050, it is estimated one in six people in the world will be over 65 years old, and the number of people aged 80 and over will triple from 143 million today to a staggering 426 million.

This growing population will require more care, placing greater demands on resource and staffing.

Coupled with global health workforce shortages, health professionals are now looking at how technology can be used to empower and support patients and carers in the future.

One solution is robots: from those tackling loneliness to surgical robots, pharmacy-dispensing robots, and even therapeutic robot seals.

Av 1 – the no isolation robot. Picture credit: No Isolation

The carer of the future

At the IRCCS San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, one assistive robot – R1 – is transforming patient care and hospital management.

Bearing a striking resemblance to Wall-E’s EVE, this humanoid robot is able to move and interact in a personalised way with people.

In the waiting room, R1 helps patients and visitors by providing useful information on the hospital and its services and facilities – giving directions to the X-Ray department or café for example.

R1 can also help patients hospitalised for longer periods, by reading them a book, providing companionship or taking their food order.

With artificial intelligence, R1 can use this data – such as food preferences – to improve hospital processes and, in this case, create better menus for their patients.

The combination of artificial intelligence and 5G connectivity means R1 can read human body language and speech, and respond with minimal delay.

Video credit: Vodafone Group

Avoiding the uncanny valley

To ensure R1 was able to interact effectively, researchers began by studying human responses during interactions.

Designers and neuroscientists then worked together to understand types of shape and movement that would make the robot seem more ‘human’, without going too far and reaching the ‘uncanny valley’ – a phenomenon where humanoids that look too similar or familiar to humans can provoke disgust and mistrust.

An LED-screen on R1’s face means it can communicate more naturally by altering its facial expressions. Small touches like this can help build trust, making it easier for patients to respond positively to the robot.

Erica the robot. Picture credit: Intelligent Robotics Laboratory

Real-time emergency tech

Other tech innovations are letting medical staff help patients before they even reach the hospital – like the connected ambulance.

5G connectivity and the latest medical technologies mean ambulance staff can share a patient’s vitals and symptoms in real-time with the hospital.

High-resolution video calling between the ambulance and hospital gives doctors a better understanding of the kind of emergency involved.

They can monitor the patient’s condition remotely, diagnose symptoms and prescribe urgent treatment that paramedics can carry out on the way to the hospital. 

Connected ambulance. Picture credit Fiona Graham / Vodafone Group

Juljana Hysenbelli, 5G Sector Lead for Health and Wellness at Vodafone Italy, says, “It’s the low latency of 5G helps us to use these functionalities.”

“The high quality means that neurologists in the hospital, for example, can ask a patient who has had a stroke to move their arm. If there’s a lag on the video call, the neurologist can’t really understand if it’s the technology or if the patient has been impacted by the stroke.”

“5G makes a big difference, and that is why these solutions are now feasible”.

The information relayed to doctors from the ambulance also means they can prepare the right treatment for arrival – meaning vital minutes saved, that could mean the difference between life and death.

Picture credit: Nomadeec

Meanwhile, ambulance staff can use augmented reality (AR) support – with HoloLens glasses – to visualise the patient’s medical history, pick up information and bespoke treatment plans for emergency care.

 “First-aiders need to follow complex operational procedures, specific to each emergency,” says Juljana.

“For instance, if a baby is being born, there is functionality built into the augmented reality which provides them with all the questions to ask, and steps to follow, during the journey to the hospital.”

Using AR to help medical professionals react more quickly and efficiently should have a measurable impact on clinical outcomes and patient welfare – saving time and money without compromising care.

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