Robotics and the Future of Medicine

Robotics and the Future of Medicine: Interview with Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Mathew Thomas and Rachel Rutledge

October 15, 2021 – By Jared Mueller, Director – Mayo Clinic Innovation Exchange

The current pandemic has seen robots take on new roles in medicine. Robotic systems have delivered supplies on hospital floors where physical distancing can reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 — and disinfected rooms when health systems have confronted acute staff shortages. These and other applications reduce the risk that airborne virus particles pose to patients and hospital staff. Meanwhile, robotic revolutions in surgery and other domains have been underway for decades. Teams across Mayo Clinic are engaging with other academic institutions, industry, and the broader robotics community.

Mathew Thomas, M.B.B.S., M.D., is chair of the Robotics Subcommittee, an associate professor of surgery, and a consultant in thoracic surgery at Mayo Clinic in Florida. Dr. Thomas earned his medical degree from T.D. Medical College / Kerala University of Health Sciences, before completing residencies at Robert Packer Hospital and Mayo Clinic, where he served as chief resident in the divisions of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery.

Rachel A. Rutledge is a clinical operations manager at Mayo Clinic in Florida, and the administrative lead for the Robotics Subcommittee. She holds master’s degrees in accounting and health administration from The Ohio State University, where she also studied as an undergraduate. Prior to beginning her career in healthcare, Rachel was an assurance associate in the accounting practice of PwC.

Q: Can you describe the culture around robotics and technological innovation at Mayo Clinic?

MT: Our Robotics committee is an extraordinarily engaged group. Many of my physician and surgical colleagues will join our evening meetings after spending 10 or 11 hours in the operating room or in clinic. They are driven to shape the future of how robotics will help improve patient outcomes, and reduce strain that can injure surgeons, nurses, and other providers. We are fortunate to engage frequently with our colleagues across the U.S. and the world — as well as with leading robotics firms and academic institutions, entities with strengths that complement Mayo Clinic’s healthcare expertise.

Robotic surgery is a well-known innovation, in the medical community and beyond. Many of my colleagues are embracing the benefits modern robotic surgery offers, while also looking forward to how other fast-developing fields such as telerobotics, haptics, blockchain technology and telemedicine can improve patient care.

RR: We have a very collaborative culture. Recently, we worked with the Mayo Clinic Innovation Exchange to organize a Mayo Clinic-wide discussion on robotics. Colleagues from Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota shared current and future use cases for robotics at Mayo Clinic sites. These ranged from facilities teams deploying robots to safely transport materials during the pandemic to surgeons exploring innovative surgical robotic technologies that may become part of Mayo Clinic’s regular practice (pending regulatory approval). In addition to learning from Mayo Clinic sites in the United States, there is tremendous opportunity to collaborate with organizations around the world to further spur innovation.

Q: Can you describe how robots might help keep Mayo’s own staff healthy, so they can better serve patients?

MT: This may be an under-appreciated source of value that robots offer. As a surgeon, I know many colleagues who have developed painful injuries as a result of static postures, overuse, and other occupational hazards in the operating room. Outside of patient-facing activities, other Mayo colleagues of ours will spend parts of their days moving thousands of pounds of equipment or consumables around expansive hospital campuses — exposing themselves to the risk of pushing and pulling injuries, slips and falls, and injuries to extremities when moving heavy carts.

If those of us in healthcare are able to allocate more time to higher-level activities (such as maneuvering a surgical robot during an operation, or developing process innovations) and delegate ergonomically riskier activities to robots, we can enhance workplace satisfaction and minimize injuries for individuals across the hospital.

Q: Why is an interdisciplinary approach essential in robotics?

RR: First and perhaps most evident, clinicians and engineers must work together to develop robotic tools and then incorporate them in clinical care. In addition, colleagues in nursing, supply chain, operations, informatics, education, and finance play essential roles in successful robotics programs. Millions of dollars are often invested upfront to develop robotic infrastructure. Depending on how many robots its hospitals maintain, a health system may need to invest millions more dollars annually for service and upkeep. Clinical learners must also be trained on incorporating robots into patient care. For these reasons, Mayo Clinic’s team-based approach to healthcare has been essential to develop and grow robotics across the enterprise.

Q: What breakthrough innovations in healthcare delivery or technology excite you most?

MT: From my perspective, there are a number of disruptive changes I am tracking in healthcare over the next decade. In addition to robotics, we also know that 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and genomics are going to create seismic shifts within healthcare. There is also another exciting new field, immersive technology, which we believe will allow the merging of digital technology, radiology and the physical world to execute accurate and better care for our patients. Of the three current immersive technologies, virtual reality and augmented reality are the most recognized, while mixed reality is less known but anticipated to be more impactful. What we are seeing now is a blending of multiple disruptive technologies where they work together to enhance each other’s utility and effect.

RR: I am excited about how we can use data to improve patient experiences and outcomes. We cannot fix what we do not realize is an opportunity for improvement. For example: how much time elapses on average between a patient’s arrival and in-room time for a surgery? How long are patients staying in recovery? Even more exciting to me is the ability to predict needs. How many patients are we likely to admit this month? Which rooms, staff, instruments, and equipment are they likely to need for their care? With better-informed predictions, our teams can plan accordingly.

Building platforms to provide quick and broadly available answers to proactive questions enables an organization to “see” a patient experience before it happens and to work to make it better. Of course there will be unpredictable situations, but using analytics to better understand processes results in fewer surprises and better responses to those that do occur.

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