Technological advances in subspecialty radiology—like those that brought
teleradiology to underserved areas of the world—are bringing together the rich field of radiology and the rapidly expanding world of robotics.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Roentgenology reviewed robotic-arm assisted sonography, a technique that uses a robotic mechanism to scan patients with an ultrasound probe.
The technology was originally developed for the military, who needed a method to bring in the expertise of sonographers without putting them in dangerous situations, like those of war time. While this need sparked the interest in the technology, many other applications have become evident.
For example, underserved areas without trained sonographers would benefit from a robotic system to provide a skilled and reliable method of imaging, bringing advanced expertise to more patients. Coupled with either local or remote subspecialty radiologist care, the potential exists to improve the accessibility and quality of healthcare offered in these regions.
Additionally, robotic technology could relieve some of the musculoskeletal stresses experienced by sonographers from the repetitive and strained ultrasound probe positioning. This would increase the number of patients a department can image and expand the staff’s potential, likely justifying the high initial costs of implementing robotic sonography.
The advantages of the robotic technology applied to sonography are certainly apparent, but new technology often brings disruption. What potential effects would robotic arm-assisted sonography have on the sonographer job market? Should we be concerned about losing jobs to robots?
Will there be a time when a patient walks into a room, lies down on a stretcher, and a robotic arm proceeds to scan their thyroid gland without any need for human contact? Combine this scenario with automated interpretation of the images and both the sonographer and radiologist would be out of the picture.
This scenario may be possible, but is highly unlikely in the near future. What’s more likely is a situation in which sonographers and radiologists work alongside robots and artificially intelligent technology to improve quality and speed of care. With a robot scanning routine ultrasound cases, a sonographer could spend more of their time with a patient who may have a complex medical and surgical history and needs high-level sonographic work.
In an age where self-driving cars and drones have begun to be implemented, we will see how society reacts as artificial intelligence and robotics become commonplace. It can bring us a better quality of life, a safer world, and perhaps more time for us to spend on high-level, intellectually rewarding, and creative ventures.
1 Swerdlow, D. R., Cleary, K., Wilson, E., Azizi-Koutenaei, B., & Monfaredi, R. (2017). Robotic Arm–Assisted Sonography: Review of Technical Developments and Potential Clinical Applications. American Journal of Roentgenology, 208(4), 733-738.