As the manager of Medical Robotics at KUKA Robotics, Corey Ryan is at the helm of company’s research, sales, and growth in the medical sector for North America. Under his leadership, KUKA has diversified its expertise to grow its relationships with startups and expand its robotic applications. Corey is a sought after speaker and has appeared at many conferences such as Automate, RoboBusiness, National Robotics Safety Conference, RoboHealthcare Summit, and AIA Vision & Collaborative Robots. He holds a BSc in Electrical Engineering from Lake Superior State University and an MBA for Science and Technology from Queen’s University in Canada.
We had a chance to ask Corey a few questions about the future of medical robotics and what KUKA is working on to get there.
Tom Fowler, Medgadget: How does KUKA help medical technology companies with their robotics projects? Do you provide research, design, manufacturing, or all of the above?
Corey Ryan: It varies by customer needs and the opportunity. Most customers purchase our robots and manage the integration and development themselves so that they have full control over the project. In those cases, we provide technical support and training. KUKA’s medical group also has a dedicated R&D team of about 100 people which we can deploy on major development projects and new feature development.
Medgadget: What is a robot that KUKA has helped develop that has been most successful in radically changing a medical task or surgical procedure?
Corey Ryan: Our longest running success story is certainly Accuray. Their Cyberknife system delivers a shaped, focused treatment beam to destroy cancerous tumors. Traditionally, patients are treated via a fixed radiation source that delivers the highest dose to the external tissues. The Cyberknife moves around the patient so that healthy tissues receive a much lower dose, but the tumor (at the focal point of the beam) receives the highest dose. By shaping the beam to conform to the tumor shape from each angle, Accuray is able to maximize treatment at the tumor site with minimal healthy tissue damage.
Medgadget: Have you encountered resistance to robots in medicine from healthcare professionals concerned that their jobs will become obsolete?
Corey Ryan: Most of the uses for robots do not replace people in the treatment process, except in a few cases where they do things that humans cannot. For example, with the Accuray Cyberknife and the Siemens Artis Pheno, the robot is carrying a payload too heavy for people to lift and delivering treatment or imaging patients in a way that is never done manually. The CARLO system, supported by KUKA and AOT, uses a laser in maxillofacial surgery to cut bone in three dimensions in a way that no human ever could – reducing the need for a lot of extra ‘hardware’ to secure the bones and increasing the healing surface area for better patient outcomes.
Medgadget: There has been some criticism in the surgical field that robotic surgeries increase costs, require more training, but don’t always improve outcomes. Do you think this will improve in the near future or do we have to drastically change the way medical professionals are trained and wait for robots to become more affordable?
Corey Ryan: Regarding the outcomes, that comment is primarily focused on the surgical market, but it has been shown that most robotic systems improve the work of an inexperienced surgeon and allow them to generate similar outcomes as a very experienced surgeon. They also can prolong the careers of experienced surgeons by making up for some of the negative physical effects of age and keeping the best surgeons cutting later in their career. Having said that, it is still hard to beat the steady hands and vast experience of a great surgeon.
Lower cost solutions are already on the market and many more are coming. Even though medical robotic arms can be pricey, the features they offer allow for a faster, lower cost development cycle and reduce the need for additional, expensive motion control components. Every company that we’ve talked with in the past few years is very cost-conscious and recognizes that the patient outcome has to be significantly better or the treatment time greatly reduced to justify development of a new system. Certainly, some older robotic systems are very expensive, but the market is definitely pushing for newer, cost-effective options.
Medgadget: If I gave you $ 1 billion for research and development, what endeavor would you pursue?
Corey Ryan: The surgical market is definitely ripe for a lower cost solution, though it is a tough market to enter since so many technologies and applications are patented. However, there are a lot of procedures that could be improved there. I also think that home healthcare (i.e. supporting those who are elderly and allowing them to stay in their homes longer) with a low cost and flexible robotic solution would really help a lot of people. Having something mobile or wheelchair mounted would greatly increase the independence of those who are homebound.