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Robot Doctors Without Borders


It seems like a story right out of a science fiction novel. Texas doctors will soon remotely preform operations on patients in China…using robots. Quartz:

The Shenzhen People’s Hospital in China and the Methodist Hospital in Houston have agreed to work together to allow surgical operations to be performed remotely using advanced robotics, reports the Shenzhen Economic News. Staff from Shenzen will fly to Houston this year for training; a start date for remote robotic surgeries has not been set.

This story has so many futuristic details crammed into it that it sounds like a joke. But behind the crazy details lies an important reality: medical tech is already taking us to places undreamed of even ten years ago. Unfortunately, not everyone sees the promise of these innovations. The author of the Quartz article points out that surgical robots are very expensive—$1.5 million per—and therefore beyond the price range of most Chinese hospitals, which are already struggling with rising costs.

The costs of robots will dramatically come down over time, just as the costs of computers and iPhones have. But the author has a point: in recent history new medical tech has tended to raise, not lower, the costs of care by giving people previously impossible treatments and procedures, thus driving them to consume more care then they otherwise would.

But with robot doctors, we’re dealing with a different technology: not just new kinds of treatments, but a more efficient way of performing treatments. Robots, the argument goes, have more precision than humans when it comes to surgery and can therefore lower the costs of things like botched surgeries and readmissions. There is a lot of good that could come from this technology, if we’re smart enough to let it.

[Hospital technology image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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