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Medical robotics continues its impressive march forward within mainstream medicine. From new applications to new technologies, the field demonstrated impressive growth over the last year.
But there’s still incredible room to grow, and looking ahead to 2024, there are a few clear areas of opportunity.
Market conditions align for growth
The practice of robotics in medical procedures has come a long way in a short time. The first robotic-assisted surgery on a live patient was performed almost 40 years ago. Now, it’s an $18 billion global market and is estimated to grow to $83 billion by 2032. Intuitive Surgical reports that its da Vinci systems alone have performed 12 million procedures.
But this only scratches the surface of what’s possible. More surgical robotics systems for more types of procedures have made the technology’s benefits to patients, surgeons and hospitals abundantly clear. Patients experience less invasive operations for faster recovery and healing, surgeons can operate with precision and avoid some physical stress on their bodies, and hospitals save money with shorter stays and fewer readmissions while also gaining a competitive marketing edge.
As a result, more health systems and physicians are expanding their use of surgical robotics. A recent Bain study found that 78% of surgeons in the U.S. are interested in surgical robotics. And even in arenas where robotics are common — like hip and knee replacements — the study found there are still a large number of procedures that do not yet involve robotics.
Near-term growth opportunities will be defined by companies exploiting gaps in the current market, either focusing on new disease states and specialties or delivering second-generation solutions that improve upon existing solutions. From a technology and innovation perspective, look for the continued expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) in robotics, the use of innovative new materials in robotic construction, ever-smaller footprint robotic systems, and surgery in the Metaverse.
Integration of AI
Perhaps no single word or technology dominated conversations in 2023 like AI, and healthcare was no exception. Its use in imaging, diagnosis and other applications continued to break new ground and demonstrated its potential to improve patient outcomes alongside provider efficiency.
In 2024, expect AI to become steadily onboarded into new and existing robotic platforms. Its proven effectiveness in imaging holds promise for improved navigational capabilities, real-time diagnosis and even the automation of basic functions.
Further ahead, we are likely to see the healthcare equivalent of driverless cars with robotic platforms able to autonomously lead on some procedures. In a recent American College of Surgeons journal article, Dr. Stephanie Worrell said that AI might even one day use video records of thousands of surgeries performed by physicians to replicate a surgical task so that it can be performed by a machine.
Advances in soft robotics received much attention over the past year, showcasing the potential for robotics to operate safely within the human body.
Most recently, an international team from the University of Galway and MIT debuted an implantable device that combines AI and soft robotics to consistently deliver drugs over time by changing its shape to overcome fibrosis. This approach could prove useful for treating chronic conditions like diabetes.
Expect these applications and others to demonstrate considerable momentum in 2024. Projects already in development include soft robotic arms that can gain entry to the surgical site smartly.
Early robotic platforms were enormous constructs that took up a lot of physical space and required extensive support systems. This naturally limited deployments to larger health systems with greater resources.
Beyond external surgery systems, the field of nanorobotics promises tiny robots that can travel within the body to deliver drugs, repair tendons or monitor for disease conditions. Earlier this year, a team from South Korea published a study detailing their use of external magnets to precisely guide a mini robot through the bloodstream of a pig to an arterial blockage where it delivered contrast dye and navigated back to an extraction site.
While the impact of introducing nanorobots into the human body is still unclear, this field is incredibly exciting and has enormous potential to advance human health and patient outcomes.
The pandemic helped telehealth go mainstream. Now, the maturation of that technology alongside novel developments like the Metaverse are opening the door to remote surgery.
To be sure, remote training of surgeons has been done for years, but new mixed-reality tools are accelerating training for robotic-assisted surgery and more complex procedures. As these technologies continue to evolve, we could one day see robots performing life-saving battlefield procedures while the surgeons operating them remain safe thousands of miles away.
Strategies for success
While 2024 will undoubtedly see new developments that could lead to even more applications of robotic technology for health and surgery, the key will be innovation through a dual lens of patient and health system benefits.
Capital-intensive investments like new robotic systems will flounder without demonstrating an ability to both improve patient outcomes as well as show operational and economic benefits to health providers. That means second-generation robots must deliver more clinical value and faster healing for patients alongside greater efficiency and revenue for health systems and their staff.
Innovators must also resist the urge to build robots for the sake of building robots. There is no market for a robotic platform that cannot dramatically improve the time, cost or outcomes of current methods.
The key for large and small robotics companies alike is to work hand-in-hand with physicians on the development of new systems. This collaborative approach will enable companies to leapfrog today’s technologies and make the stuff of yesterday’s science fiction tomorrow’s reality.
Editor’s Note: This article was republished from sister website Medical Design & Outsourcing.
About the Author
Jian Zhang, founder and CEO of Noah Medical, is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded two other successful startups and served as CEO. He was also employee No. 2 at Auris Health, which was acquired by Johnson & Johnson for $5.7B in 2019.
Before joining Auris, he worked at Intuitive Surgical. Zhang received his MS and PhD from Columbia University.