An All Black suffers a knee injury.

A doctor fits them with wearable technology that monitors their recovery, firing out enough data to effectively automate their therapy - all through a smartphone app.

A University of Auckland expert believes this is how technology will change the face of healthcare, rather than the sci-fi scenario of robot doctors replacing their human counterparts in hospitals.

And Associate Professor Andrew McDaid says it will usher in a new era of cheaper, personalised and more effective "virtual therapy".


Currently, rehabilitation after a medical event such as stroke is carried out by trained physical or occupational therapists - but much of the work is physically demanding and the cost is relatively high and time-consuming.

While some robotics devices used for physical rehabilitation have been developed overseas, they lagged far behind what a human therapist is capable of.

"The current technology has little or no intelligence and can only act on predefined rules, so it's not tailored to individuals and doesn't have the ability to adapt and learn as a human therapist would."

McDaid's work took in a strongly data-driven approach, looking at the fundamental physiology of human movement and building on that information to create individual recovery plans.

In a new $800,000, five-year project supported with a Rutherford Discovery fellowship, he plans to use wearable tech, artificial intelligence and machine learning to pioneer new devices capable of personalising rehabilitation.

"This fellowship is about collecting rich data from people throughout recovery from injury or disease and harnessing the huge potential of that data to glean better understanding of medical conditions – we then use that new knowledge to improve and automate healthcare."

McDaid believed that, if we wanted to maintain the current standard of medical care we enjoy now, we had to harness the power of automation.

"Costs are rapidly increasing and skilled human resource is not scalable at a fast enough rate, with aging populations, obesity and other epidemics we simply can't keep up with demand without this type of disruptive technology."


Robotics are already appearing in the medical domain, most notably in the surgical arena.

The University of Auckland's Associate Professor Andrew McDaid. Photo / Supplied
The University of Auckland's Associate Professor Andrew McDaid. Photo / Supplied

"Exoskeletons have faced many challenges, both technical and in demonstrating clinical benefits, so haven't yet found widespread commercially viability, but this will come with time," he said.

"There is also much interest in using AI and machine learning to automate clinical tasks, for example processing of medical images for cancer diagnostics."

Two Northland clinicians even recently suggested AI would soon perform a significant amount of the decision-making traditionally done by doctors.

But McDaid expected the human workforce would simply adapt around machines, and not be made redundant by them.

"I believe more highly-skilled jobs and human-centric jobs will be created, so humans will end up focusing on more valuable and fulfilling work," he said.

"In the context of today's pressures on healthcare systems, you won't find any healthcare professional that wouldn't be happy to have some of their more repetitive tasks automated which will give them more time to focus on the patients that really need their help."