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China Expands Its Medical Robotics Industry

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Suppose you were suffering from progressive numbness on the right side of your body, caused by a deformity in your upper cervical vertebrae, and that the only way to prevent the numbness from getting worse was a risky procedure in which a screw was implanted in your neck bone. Would you entrust this surgery to a robot, knowing that any minor mistake could lead to paralysis or a life-threatening hemorrhage?

As risky as this sounds, it was performed successfully on a patient at Jishuitan Hospital in Beijing, by a physician and Phecda, a robot with a 3D high-definition visual system that is able to see the internal orthopedic structure and possesses a robotic hand that can guide medical tools to the proper location within 0.8 millimeters, as reported by China Daily.

In fact, this was the world’s first robot-assisted surgery on upper cervical vertebrae, according to the physician who co-performed the procedure, Tian Wei. Developed by TINAVI Medical Technology Co. and Jishuitan Hospital, Phecda is just a small part of the country’s Made in China 2025 strategy, which is designed to promote high-end manufacturing in China.

By the year 2050, more than 400 million people in China will be more than 60 years old, which would account for more than 30 percent of the population, according to official data. Hence, the growing number of senior citizens will not only provide ample demand for products created by the medical robotics industry, but will also offer a large quantity of clinical cases, which companies can leverage to supercharge research and development.

As of 2016, China’s medical robotics industry was valued at ¥791 million, up drastically from the previous year, according to research firm GCIS. Thus, TINAVI is not the only player in town. Firms such as Jinshan Science and Technology, based in the southwestern megalopolis of Chongqing, have launched minimally-invasive surgical robots for treating various diseases.

The Chinese government has not only set up industry funds to encourage medical robot makers through rent rebates and help with filing intellectual property patent applications, but also encourages public hospitals to play an active role in developing neurosurgical robots.

Indeed, this industry holds so much promise that even major appliance makers such as Midea Group want a piece of the action, setting up joint ventures with firms such as Yaskawa Electric Corp. in developing nursing care and rehabilitation robots. This makes sense given the fact that Japanese firms are such major players in the robotics industry. But the level and speed of progress we are seeing from Chinese firms in robotics, and in particular, medical robotics, is stunning, and it may only be a matter of time before Chinese companies overcome foreign leaders such as Intuitive Surgical, by offering more precise and at the same time more affordable products.

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