Robot doctors may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they are starting to show up in real-life hospitals. Concerns about the shortage of medical professionals and the need to protect them from exposure during the COVID-19 pandemic probably speeded the trend.
Regardless of the reasons hospitals are turning to the use of robots to provide medical care, the practice raises many ethical and legal questions. One of these concerns is where responsibilities lie when medical mistakes injure a patient. Who is to blame?
How Do Robots Provide Health Care?
At present, the service of robot doctors is a novelty, offered on an experimental or trial basis in most situations. Surgeons, however, have been relying on robot-assisted surgery for decades.
In the surgical arena, doctors have traditionally worked with three types of robotic systems. The type referred to as “master-slave” systems depend entirely on a surgeon for guidance. The surgeon makes hand movements that are transmitted to surgical instruments operating within the patient’s body.
By contrast, systems referred to as “active” undertake tasks programmed in advance working autonomously. They remain under the control of an operative surgeon but essentially as a failsafe measure. Systems described as “semi-active” work with pre-programmed elements augmented by elements driven directly by a surgeon.
Now, scientists have developed robotic surgeons that can perform without human guidance. The robot surgeon Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot or STAR recently proved to be capable of performing better than a human surgeon when given the task of connecting two ends of an intestine in a difficult laparoscopic procedure. STAR is considered to be the first robot with the capability to plan and execute a surgical procedure with virtually no human intervention. The robot can even react and adapt to cope with unexpected challenges that arise during surgery.
Robotics in Radiotherapy and Rehabilitation
Robotic technology has been used in radiotherapy for almost as long as in surgery. Linear accelerators mounted on robotic arms are used all around patients’ bodies to treat tumors in precise locations. Robotic treatment couches position patients for treatment, and medical professionals can use them to move patients without entering the treatment room.
Although the use of robots in medical rehabilitation is a more recent innovation, the practice is quickly becoming common. For instance, robotic devices can deliver controlled repetitive gait training that is hard for a human therapist to match.
Hospital Service Robots
Hospitals are increasingly relying on robots to deliver meals, medications, and specimens through their facilities. In addition, the desire for contactless sanitation procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged hospitals to use robots for sanitation functions as well.
Robots are also being used to provide social interaction for patients, particularly children and the elderly.
The newest use of robots by hospitals sees this machinery actually taking over actions performed by doctors. For instance, “Dr. Spot,” a four-legged robot introduced to patients in a Boston hospital, evaluates patient symptoms and performs minor procedures such as placing intravenous catheters.
Use of this type of robot can alleviate problems caused by staff shortages and reduce human workers’ exposure to infectious diseases.
Assessing Blame for Injuries
Increase in the use of artificial intelligence and robotics in medicine raises critical liability questions. If a robotic device injures a patient in surgery, for instance, is the making of the device liable, or is the doctor who elected to use it? Should liability be based on a negligence standard or will accountable parties be held to a strict liability standard? Will it matter if a patient was given a choice about the use of robotic technology in treatment?
Robot surgeons can perform many procedures much faster than human surgeons. For that reason and others, treatment by robotic medicine is less expensive, so we should expect to see it much more in the future.
Courts Examine Individual Circumstances
Malfunctions in robotic devices have been blamed for many patient injuries. In most cases, injured patients file lawsuits against the hospital, healthcare providers, and the company that manufactured the robot. The courts examine the circumstances to determine whether faulty programming or a mechanical breakdown caused the injury or whether the surgeon’s improper use or reliance on the device caused the injury.
In the future, in situations where a patient may be treated by a robot without oversight by a doctor, cases could be much different. Courts may decide that the manufacturers or sellers of robot doctors should be strictly liable for harm caused by their devices without any showing of negligence in the design, manufacturing, or marketing of the product. This standard is used in certain product liability cases, and it encourages innovation and safety in the research and development of these critical products.
Whether Injury is Caused by a Robot or a Human, It Remains Malpractice
Patients have a right to expect their medical care to be performed to appropriate medical standards. This remains true regardless of whether the care is provided by a human, a robot, or a combination of the two.
When patients receive substandard care and suffer injuries as a result, they should be able to hold medical providers accountable and recover compensation for their losses. Medical malpractice is an actionable wrong and somewhere along the line, a human can be held liable.
An Experienced Attorney Can Help Assess Liability for Injuries from Robotic Medicine
When robot doctors cause injuries, the case will involve many questions. In-depth research into the cause of injuries will be critical. This type of research can take considerable time and tenacity.
This means that patients injured in a procedure or due to advice from a device with artificial intelligence should consult an experienced attorney as soon as possible so the legal team can investigate before evidence becomes too hard to find. The dedicated personal injury lawyers at Searcy Denney help victims of all types of medical malpractice. For a free case evaluation, contact our team today. We have offices to serve you in West Palm Beach, Tallahassee, and Tampa.