Ohio State hosts Robotics Engineered for the Future of Healthcare Symposium

Posted: May 17, 2021
illustration of robot wrapping bandage around patient's foot

Thought leaders from engineering and medicine converged on April 9 for the “Robotics Engineered for the Future of Healthcare” symposium.

Hosted by The Ohio State University, the interdisciplinary virtual event focused on approaches that catalyze new programs and innovation in robotic systems applied specifically to making healthcare more accessible, more affordable and of higher quality. Presentations featured experts from across the country speaking on a wide array of topics – from how robotics can enhance dental and veterinary medicine to robotic integration with 3D printing and tissue engineering.

Among the panel of experts was College of Engineering Dean Ayanna Howard, who delivered a keynote address, “Academia and Industry Uniting for Patients.” The slate of speakers also included: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Associate Professor David Hoelzle, who presented on the integration of robotics with 3D printing and tissue engineering; Materials Science and Engineering Associate Professor David Dean, who discussed the use of robotics with medical imaging; and Integrated Systems Engineering Associate Professor Michael Groeber, who spoke about integrating robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

Dean Howard’s presentation focused on her own journey working with healthcare robotics and AI, as well as the future of the field and potential challenges.

“We have so much sensor data around us, not just in our medical devices, but we wear it—whether it's a Fitbit or a smartwatch, our phones. It's embedded in our cities and in our buildings,” said Howard. “This allows us to amass all of this data together that tells us interesting things about our health and wellbeing. But data really isn’t useful unless you can do something with it. And that is the future of the healthcare industry. It's basically the use of data, the use of sensors, coupled with artificial intelligence and robotics to improve our quality of life.”

She shared her own experiences with healthcare robotics in her lab and research, where she designs robots and adaptive gamified technologies to assist children with disabilities. One of her main points was the importance of participatory design when working in the field with patients whose behavior can deviate despite having the same disability.

screenshot of Zoom presentation by Ayanna Howard
Dean Ayanna Howard's presentation included her own experiences with healthcare robotics in her lab and research.

“As engineers we have to not have our pride destroyed because we are going into the field to get input, knowing that our technology is not optimal and probably will not work for the majority of the kids we see, but understand that the function is to identify when it breaks, how it breaks, why it breaks, and use that information with the input to then iterate.”

Howard noted that prior to COVID-19, many people had some level of reluctance about robotics and AI in healthcare. However, the use of these technologies has increased significantly in the past year, including drone delivery for medication, AI for contact tracing and chatbots for patient engagement.

“The acceleration of this technology in this last year has been thrilling and amazing, but it's also been a little terrifying in some cases because it's no longer important to just do the research,” she said. “We must figure out from very early on how to deploy it so that it is helpful and workful and socially impactful for improving outcomes in general.”

As for future opportunities, she noted the significance of wearable sensors – such as those embedded in clothing – for identifying changes in healthcare outcomes, which could help a patient learn if they need to see a specialist or if a medication isn’t at a proper dosage. Howard also mentioned the use of virtual reality technology in medical training programs. Additional areas of growth include collaborative robots that serve as a partner to the clinician, therapist or surgeon, and emotional robots to help alleviate patient fears or anxiety.

The biggest challenge she sees facing robotic systems is the potential biases and inequality that exist when the technology is designed and evaluated, which can ultimately affect health outcomes.

“We have to design our robotic technology, such that it is adaptive to the diverse needs and characteristics of our patient population,” said Howard. “When we're designing and we think about the average, that is the wrong way to think about our technologies in order to have equal outcomes for the maximum number of people.”

“Industry thinks about this all the time, because they need to sell the product to the largest number of people. And I think as academics and researchers, we do not take it on as our responsibility as much as we can.”

The symposium was sponsored by The Ohio State University Colleges of Medicine and Engineering under the auspices of the Center for Medical and Engineering Innovation (CMEI), the Center for Research, Education and Advancement of Transdisciplinary Exploration (CREATE) and the Center for Minimally Invasive Surgery (CMIS). Recordings of presentations may be viewed online.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu

Categories: ResearchCollege