The global medical robotics market is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.5 percent to be worth $12.6 billion in 2025 – up from just under $4 billion in 2018, according to a recent report from Ameco Research.

Robotics’ current impact on the healthcare sector was spearheaded earlier this century by Intuitive Inc, manufacturer of the Da Vinci surgical robot, explains the report.

But aside from the headline-grabbing forecasts churned out by analysts, what is going on at more granular level in the industry? Some answers come from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), a global industry group that publishes annual horizontal and vertical reports on real-world uptake.

The IFR categorises medical robots as being part of the professional service robot market – as distinct from the industrial machines used in production-line processes. Alongside medical systems, this subsector includes robots used in logistics, defence, human exoskeletons (for mobility and lifting aids), public relations (such as robots in museums, airports, and shopping malls), and some agricultural applications, such as milking.

According to the IFR’s latest figures, sales of medical robots increased by 73 percent year on year in 2017, to 2,931 units – a significant uptick, but still relatively small numbers for a global market. Within that market, the most significant applications were robot-assisted surgery and therapy, with 1,502 units sold in 2017, 22 percent more than in 2016.

Medical robots accounted for just 2.7 percent of total robot sales in the professional service market, says the IFR. However, their total sales value increased to $1.9 billion, 29 percent of the market in financial terms. Between now and 2021, medical robots’ sales value will increase to over $9.5 billion, it says.

This indicates a high price tag for specialist medical systems, which is one reason why growth has been higher in the insurance-based US healthcare system than in the UK’s taxpayer-funded NHS, for example. The average unit price is $650,000, including accessories and services, which is why many suppliers provide leasing options.

Nevertheless, the organisation forecasts that roughly 22,100 medical robots of all types will be sold between this year and 2021.

The total number of professional service robots sold in 2017 soared by 85 percent to 109,543 units, up from 59,269 in 2016. However, their total sales value increased by just 39 percent to $6.6 billion. The reason for the disparity is not the falling cost of service robots overall, suggests the IFR, but a decrease in uptake of highly priced automated defence systems.

The IFR believes that sales of professional service robots overall will prove to have been worth $8.7 billion in 2018 – a one-third uptick year on year – and will total $37 billion between now and 2021, a CAGR of 19 percent. The accuracy of the 2018 figures will be determined in the organisation’s next annual report.

Overall, then, the IFR’s numbers support the big-picture trends revealed by the Ameco Research report, but put the figures for current medical robots significantly lower, valuing the market at $2.3 billion in 2018, compared to Ameco’s estimates of nearly twice that.

But while robotic surgery is clearly on the increase by all recent estimates, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week published evidence that medical robots’ combination of sensors, automation, and assistance to human surgeons does not guarantee better medical outcomes.

The FDA points to two recent studies. One found that cervical cancer patients who underwent minimally invasive surgery, including robot-assisted procedures, experienced four times as many cancer recurrences and six times as many deaths compared to women who underwent traditional surgery.

A second found that, four years after cervical cancer operations, 9.1 percent of those who had minimally invasive surgery had died, compared with 5.3 percent of those who had traditional open surgery.

The FDA has ordered healthcare providers to complete the training needed to use surgical robots effectively, and urged patients to ask their doctors about their training and experience, as well as about their patient outcomes.

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