Professor Kawal Rhode is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and the Head of Education at the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences:
Joining the Radiological Sciences department at King’s as a medical student in 1991 changed my life. Back then, computing power was rising at an amazing rate and was beginning to catch up with our ambitions. The release of Intel’s 32-bit microprocessors and the advent of graphical processor units was a gamechanger. These days, it would be unheard of to resect a tumour without image guidance using computer-processed images, but back then it was the norm. Having accessible and affordable computer power changed all of this. Machines were suddenly in the operating theatres, allowing NHS professionals to do things quicker and easier.
In the last 10-15 years we’ve seen robotics research ramp up. My work focuses on working out how robots and humans can co-exist. What’s the most effective way of using robots? How do robots help patient outcomes? How do robots affect the psychology of NHS staff? What are the ethics? It’s thrilling work.
We’re taking lessons from other areas of industry. Look at automated manufacturing systems in the motor industry. There, we have robots building parts of the car before the work is passed onto humans. In the NHS, we could employ robots to do simple tasks like stitching an open wound. On the flipside, we could allow robotic systems to do what humans find high risk. This would mean the machine could complete the task at a lower risk and then allow the human to step back in. This is known as shared autonomy.
In the 30 years since I’ve been working with the NHS, I’ve seen computers become an essential part of the healthcare system. I’ve also seen artificial intelligence become a reality. But technology must benefit one of three things – the patients, the staff or the NHS’ bottom line. If the technology has none of these benefits, it has no value to the system. We’re not trying to replace humans with robots. We’re helping healthcare professionals do the job they need to do. Robotics is an assistive technology, designed to free up time so staff can be redeployed in the place they’re needed most.
The most exciting innovation for me is the combination of AI and robotics. Up to now, they’ve tended to sit separately. But the potential to bring these together is huge; we could get waiting lists down and improve patient outcomes. The possibilities are endless.
Machines and technology cause a step change in how we deliver healthcare. I feel so proud to live in a country with outstanding healthcare, but I can only strive to make it better. We also need to help those around the world have what we have. Healthcare equality on a global scale. That’s truly exciting.