Health Care Robotics Needs a Czar - Robotics Business Review
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Health Care Robotics Needs a Czar
PLUS..A national plan, national leadership, and lots of government money
By Tom Green


What’s the Greatest Need for Health Care Robotics
to Really Succeed in 2013?

In a Word, a Czar

Putting robotics successfully into the health care system in America is a big problem that needs big science, big technology and big engineering…all of which need big money to succeed.

And the only place to find big money for such a big problem is with big government. That’s a lot of bigs, but that’s how we got a man on the Moon and made the Internet happen. Robotics needs the same big approach.

That’s a lot of “bigs”

If we give it a chance, robotics may well be the most important and cost-effective technology to enter the health care system since IT. In terms of clinical services and direct patient care, it may well prove itself to be more important.

finger in dike

While Surgical Robotics, and Robotic Replacement for Diminished or Lost Function are tremendous success stories, and what’s in the offing for the recently emergent Robot-assisted Recovery and Rehabilitation bodes well, what comes after those three has succeeded little and progressed even less.

Robotic care devices for the elderly, behavioral robotics, wellness robotics, and special needs robotics languish while millions of people could be superbly served by them.

But let’s face it, for the most part, health care robotics for many of these affected groups are still in health care robotics laboratories scattered all over the country instead of in the field providing the care for which each was conceived and built—or, more than likely, still being built.

Granted, health care robotics, just like robotics in general, is still a youthful technology. However, health care robotics has to grow up fast if it’s to meet the demands of the dire health care problems hurtling towards society. And although youthful, shouldn’t it have produced more technology of consequence than it has thus far? Something is off kilter and needs to be addressed very soon.

Houston, we have a problem

For example, there are no fewer than sixty-five robotic hands under development worldwide, some of which are now in trials or commercially available. However, does health care robotics really need sixty-five R&D programs ongoing to develop such devices? Are some projects unnecessary or needing to be combined with others and, as such, is a good percentage of research funds misspent? Probably.

As Thomas Rogers, writing in put it: “We’ve been expecting elder care robots…in the real world for several years now, and so far, they’re nowhere to be seen. So what’s the hold up?” 

Even robotics insiders like Rick Lynch, director of the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute (UTARI) see that the technology has problems. He ascribes the sluggishness of health care robotics to make it to the real world to “stovepipes” of research labs that isolate themselves from collaboration and ploddingly carry out ongoing robotics projects for decades at a time with little to show for their efforts.

Hard problems are hard

More to the point is Jason Pontin’s timely piece in MIT’s Technology Review, aptly titled: Why We Can’t Solve the Big Problems. The article decries our inability to solve the mega problems facing society—of which health care robotics, even to the casual observer, is one—that only a few decades ago where routinely attacked and vanquished.

“That something happened to humanity’s capacity to solve big problems is commonplace,” writes Pontin. “It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it.”

Pontin quotes President Kennedy at Rice University in 1962: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade, and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

Much in Pontin’s must-have “elements” for success are absent from the health care robotics landscape.

Let’s not point fingers—let’s just “do”

It’s a problem not lost on the health care robotics community.  A group of twenty-six academic and industry experts developed the Research Roadmap for Medical and Healthcare Robotics  (2009) in which the group put forth the goals for health care robotics and the potential difficulties in getting to those goals.

“To create a health robotics industry, first resources must be directed toward funding collaborative ventures that bring together the necessary expertise in engineering, health, and business. Funding is specifically needed in the areas of incubating and producing complete systems and evaluating those on patient populations in trials that are a yearlong or longer. Currently no funding agency exists for such incubation: the research is too technological for NIH, too medical for NSF, and too far removed from an immediate market to be funded by business or venture capital. As a result, there is a lack of critical mass of new, tested and deployed technological innovations, products and businesses to create an industry.

“The ultimate goal of medical and health robotics is for a consumer to be able to go to a store and purchase an appropriate system, much like one buys a computer today, and then integrate that system into the home without requiring retrofitting.

“The technology must be shown to be effective, affordable, and accepted. The lack of a supporting industry makes progress in medical and health robotics slow.”


In 2011, the federal government stepped in when the National Robotics Initiative (NRI) came into existence with a paltry $50 million in development funds.

It’s paltry by comparison to a single Japanese robotics project, “Home-use Robot Practical Application Project”, that has $93 million to work with (almost twice as much as the NRI’s total budget: a staggering $43 million more) to develop and commercialize practical, home-use robots and to develop safety technologies and standards for them.

And what organizations are distributing those funds?  The NIH and NSF. The same government organizations that the Research Roadmap said couldn’t pull it off: “the research is too technological for NIH, too medical for NSF”.

So where do we stand? With the exception of surgical and medical assistive robotics, some prosthetic and rehab robotics, a few telepresence robots, and medical supply-train robots in a handful of hospitals, health care robotics is a promise more than a decade old and still on its way to the front lines—and may well be still on its way if something big time isn’t done to get it going.

A staggering scenario of possibility with a huge upside awaits health care robotics.  In spite of so little government help and the cold shoulder it gets from business and investors, health care robotics for 2013 is a breathtaking array of superb ideas, brilliant engineering and dedicated people poured into hundreds of marvelous machines of unlimited promise and potential.

More and more it’s looking like putting robotics into the health care system will take, as Pontin suggests, a mega effort. And there’s no better time to take the plunge than in 2013. 

There are superb, game-changing health care technologies sitting in labs that need a way to escape to the field; there are still other health care technologies going nowhere fast that need to be quickly and mercifully abandoned.

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