The Rise of the Robot Nurse

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As technology continues to advance and become cheaper and more accessible, its uses are increasingly benefiting human workers in the healthcare industry. Globally, medical professionals are experimenting with ways in which robots can fill growing caps in the healthcare workforce. These experiments are becoming increasingly important: U.S. Census Bureau estimates indicate nearly 25 percent of the population will be 65 or older by 2060, meaning demands for more care will be imminent.

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The Rise of the Robot Nurse

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Why Nurses Need Robots

Large Aging Population

A large aging baby boomer population will soon put greater strain on our healthcare system. This strain can be alleviated with the help of robots. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there will be 78 million people aged 65 and older by 2035, compared to 76.4 million people under 18. The problem in Japan is even more extreme. Nearly one in three individuals is over 65. With only about 1.2 births per women, there aren’t enough people entering the workforce to replace for those leaving. These numbers translate to a significant shortage of nurses in healthcare to care for the elderly.

Robots to the Rescue

Robots can help alleviate the healthcare crunch in several important ways. They can carry out repetitive tasks, such as checking patients’ vital signs and conditions. Remote-controlled robots can also lend surgery support and handle interactive caretaker duties. Pharmabotic robots can also be used to dispense prescriptions like an ATM. Additionally, certain robots can efficiently disinfect any space in a healthcare facility.

Japan’s Robot Rollout

Japan’s nursing shortage is so severe, the government has undertaken a substantial role in promoting robotics development in healthcare by offering subsidies to developers and manufacturers.

The Japanese Robotics Market

An estimated 5,000 nursing care institutions are testing robots. The market is expected to more than triple by 2020, where it’s projected to reach $480 million. Currently, Japanese manufacturers deliver 52% of the world’s supply of industrial robots. The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has gotten involved as well, providing ¥4.7 billion in subsidies since 2015. The Japanese labor ministry has also spent ¥5.2 billion on promoting the proliferation of robots into facilities. Additionally, the Japanese government provided $20 million to support the development of the therapeutic robot, Paro.

Famous Japanese Robots

Several Japanese robots have become well-known in the country’s healthcare landscape. Paro nuzzles patients who either talk to it or stroke it. The dog-like Aibo is designed as a friendly pet for the elderly. Pepper specializes in customer service, but it also monitors corridors at night and talks to patients. The smaller robot Chapit is also capable of engaging in elementary conversation. Robear has the capacity to transfer a person from a bed to a wheelchair, and Palro can lead a group of elderly people in an exercise routine.

Opportunities for Improvement

Robots need to get better at communication, especially invaluable areas like surgery. A recent study showed that poor team communication during an operation is linked with worse surgical outcomes in robotic gynecologic surgery. Further research is necessary to test and refine robot behavior in high-stress environments like operating rooms.

Another area of improvement is movement, which was demonstrated by an experiment conducted by Dr. Elena De Momi and her colleagues. They used robots to mimic human reaching motion, and the results showed that 70% of the time the robotic arms were “biologically inspired,” meaning their neural networks had adapted to mimicking human behavior.

The third area of improvement revolves around human-robot interaction. While robots can perform basic tasks that require no emotional decision-making or empathy, they need to be able to interact with human co-workers to be truly useful in helping to alleviate staff shortages. This may rely on robots evoking a higher motor resonance.

What’s Next?

Though robotics is becoming very useful in nursing, the development of new and advanced surgical systems will further improve healthcare by allowing healthcare professionals to spend more time interacting with patients.

One of these systems Medrobotics’ Flex Robotic System which allows surgeons to perform minimally invasive procedures with greater maneuverability. Hansen Medical has also developed a robot called the Sensei X2 Robotic System, specializes in catheter stability. The ROSA Spine, developed by Medtech, is a surgical system for minimally invasive spine surgery. Titan Medical’s SPORT surgical system is a single-incision advanced robotic surgical system that uses multi-articulated instruments with single-use replaceable tips. Finally, Aethon’s Tug robot is an autonomous mobile delivery robot that can transport racks, carts, or bins up to 453 kg.

As these demonstrate, robotics is well on its way to impacting many procedures and roles in healthcare. As tech becomes more advanced, nurses will need to learn how to adapt to robotic coworkers and develop skills to direct and manage them. With the help of robotics, healthcare professionals can be confident in their ability to meet the demands of a large aging population and provide personalized quality care.

Learn More

For students who aspire to an advanced career in nursing, Ohio University’s online MSN program helps them gain the skills and experience necessary to take their nursing careers to the next level. Learn more about Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing.