• MSN Innovation in partnership with Nissan
08/10/2013 08:45 | By Mark Hattersley, contributor, MSN Innovation

Will robot nurses soon be caring for us?

Can an army of robot nurses combat the increasing cutbacks in healthcare?

An army of robots (© Getty Images)

Say hello to your new nurse. Robots can perform many cleaning and caretaker roles currently done by nurses

The nurse looking after you in your twilight years could be a little different. Say hello to Nursebot, the robotic care assistant that is going to save an ageing population.

Nursebot is a solution to a big problem in developed countries. As Kseniya Charova from Stanford University points out: “in many technologically advanced societies, people are not only living longer, but are also having fewer children. This trend has led to a disproportionately large growth rate of the elderly population relative to the labour force. Since many people are living until old age and not enough children are born to make up the difference, there are fewer and fewer resources to take care of older generations.”

Put simply: there aren’t enough nurses to go around. And countries are starting to get radical in their solutions. Here in the UK we’re importing nurses from other parts of the world; Germany is exporting its elderly population to what was formerly East Germany, leading Munich’s leading newspaper to denounce it as “gerontologic colonialism” and compare it to other “nations exporting their trash.” But the real pioneers here are Japan, who are taking car production line technology and delivering it straight to the hospital bedside.

RoNA is a dextrous assistant (© HSTar Technolgoies)

RoNA is a dextrous assistant that can pass objects to patients, nurses and doctors

Robotic care for an old age

HStar Technologies is now taking orders for its Robotic Nursing Assistant (RoNA) and Serbot, and researchers from Carnegie Mellon University are putting the final touches on a nursebot called Pearl. According to the sales brochure, RoNA is a “stable, highly mobile, dexterous, autonomous, bi-manual humanoid robotic nursing assistant. Equipped with highly dexterous robotic arms of payload up to 10 lbs.” The Serbot is designed to monitor and transport elderly patients with limited mobility. Pearl even has built-in telepresence functionality, which essentially allows the patient to talk through the robot to a physician or nurse. The nurse or physician can control the robot remotely using a tablet device. When not being controlled remotely the robot performs routine caretaking tasks and checks on the status of patients.

The Serbot (© HStar Technolgoies)

The Serbot is designed to monitor and transport patients with limited mobility

More accurate than a human

While it’s easy to envision a future where elderly patients are left to their own devices among malfunctioning machines, it’s worth taking a look at some of the upsides of automated healthcare.

The main thing is that a robotic nurse could be more reliable than a human one. Robots are increasingly being used in operating theatres instead of human nurses. In a recent article published in the Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) magazine, Mithun George Jacob and three co-authors, noted that errors in medical care are the “principal cause of mortality and morbidity”. They point out that robots have accuracy and “timely, accurate surgical delivery to the surgeon can lead to decreased cognitive load, time, and effort for surgeons” and that “the possibility of retained surgical instruments is avoided through accurate, thorough, timely tracking and monitoring of instruments used; retained instruments can puncture organs and cause internal bleeding”.

This accuracy could easily be extended beyond the operating theatre and into patient care. Patients need reliable nursing as much as anything. 

Pearl the robotic nurse (© Carnegie Mellon Univerisity)

Pearl has a built-in telepresence feature, enabling patients to talk directly to a doctor or nurse

Robots could do the heavy lifting

Robotic machinery is also capable of heavy lifting without causing undue backstrain. Hstar Technologies' RoNA system is capable of lifting patients that weigh up to 21 stone or more. Hstar notes that “Nurses suffer a higher rate of musculoskeletal injury than any other US profession.” With obesity levels rising and nurse numbers falling this could become a serious problem. A robotic nurse will have fewer workplace injuries and fewer patient falls. Because patients need to be turned multiple times a day (to prevent bedsores) a robotic patient turner is actually a big deal.

Heavy lifting, cleaning and monitoring aside, there are many areas of nursing where the role of robots is ethically less than clear. Distributing medicine is one of those areas. Kseniya Charova, Cameron Schaeffer and Lucas Garron from Stanford University note that “A robot nurse will have to make complicated decisions regarding its patients on a daily basis.” This may not be as straightforward as you’d imagine: “if a robot is programmed to remind its patients to take their medicine, it needs to know what to do if the patient refuses. On one hand, refusing the medicine will harm the patient,” they note. “On the other hand, the patient may be refusing for a number of legitimate reasons that the robot may not be aware of.”

A robot in hospital (© AP Images)

Robotic nurses could help you eat meals as well as take care of other daily duties

Dangers and physical concerns

There are also real concerns about placing machinery inside care homes. Robots can fail, they can malfunction and they are not going to be capable of dealing with the range of events that a human can (nor are they likely to possess the intelligence to do so any time soon). When placed in the position of looking after an elderly or frail person, who is also incapable of perhaps judging or responding to a situation, the results could be fatal.

And there is the problem of placing large heavy movable machinery in the same space as elderly, fragile and perhaps not altogether ‘with it’ people. As Charova, Shaeffer and Garron point out: “Robots can typically lift no more than 10% of their own weight. A nursing robot capable of lifting, say, a full-grown man and putting him in a bath or a wheelchair can weigh as much as a car. The possibility of a one-tonne robot becoming unbalanced and toppling on a patient does not bear thinking about.”

Cody the bed bath robot (© Cody the bed bath robot)

Cody, the world’s first autonomous bed bath robot developed by Georgia Tech University

Robot intimacy (good and bad)

Of course, aside from safety concerns there is also the pressing matter of intimacy and human contact. Many of us are not looking forward to our twilight years, and the idea of spending our remaining time on Earth talking to a mechanical machine is not exactly an ideal retirement. However, it is worth balancing this against the ignominy of dependency.

Chih Hung King was the test subject for Cody, the world’s first autonomous bed bath robot (developed by Georgia Tech University). He outlined what it was like to be intimately hand washed by Cody. “In the beginning I felt a bit tense,” said King “but never scared. As the experiment progressed, my trust in the robot grew and my tension waned. Throughout the experiment, I suffered little-to-no discomfort.”

King also shared a few thoughts on his experience of care by the robotic nurse: “I understand that it is easy to poke fun or jest about robot-human contact.... However, as anyone who has ever dealt with an incapacitated loved one can attest, bed baths are one of the least [sic] unpleasant and awkward tasks befalling caregivers and family members. Presumably robots could one day fulfill such hygiene tasks and offer many benefits: increased privacy and comfort, greater independence and quality of life, consistent performance, and long-term operation. I think this is a step in the right direction.”

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