The Robots Are Healthcare!

Kim BellardReady or not, there are robots in your future.  And some of them will be for health care.

There has been growing concern that the rise of robots, along with artificial intelligence (AI), will create huge impacts on jobs.  Within the last few months both McKinsey and PwC have issued white papers on the topic.  The former found that nearly half of jobs have the potential to be automated (although most not totally), while the latter expects 38% of U.S. jobs at at high risk of automation within 20 years.

Health care is not high on most lists of sectors whose jobs are soonest to be heavily impacted by robots, but it is on the list -- and it will happen.

The Pew Research Center asked people for their predictions about robots and computers taking jobs, and found a curious dichotomy.  While two-thirds expected those technologies to take over most jobs within 50 years, 80% thought their own jobs were safe.  They were more worried about their industry declining or jobs going to lower wage workers.

Even the ones who happen to be right about their job may still feel the impact.  Recent research suggests that robots not only take jobs but also reduce wages for the remaining jobs.

If you are worried about your job, there's a website Will Robots Take My Job which allows you to calculate the odds your job will be replaced by a robot.  If you are a physician (0.42%), nurse (0.9%), or pharmacist (1.2%), you're probably feeling safe, but if you work on an assembly line (97%) or are a truck driver (79%), not so much.

And if you are a billing clerk (96%), pharmacy tech (94%), or personal care aide (75%), well, you might want to brush up that resume.

Robots are becoming more and more human-like.  China's University of Science and Technology have unveiled "super-realistic" robots that have facial expressions, can carry on conversations, even practice calligraphy.   A professor at Osaka University has created a robot named Erika that Bloomberg called the "creepiest robot ever built" because it is so lifelike.  

There are already hotels -- in Japan, of course -- that are staffed solely by robots.

Although sophisticated robots like in robotic surgery or nanobots are already here or coming (respectively), many see robots to assist with caregiving as filling one of the biggest health care needs.  Global Markets Insights, Inc. projects that the market for "healthcare assistive robots" will grow 19% annually from 2016 to 2024, and that's the early stages of the market.

Let's face it: there are a lot of shitty jobs in health care.  In many cases, literally.  Jobs that it is hard to find workers to fill, especially because they tend to be low wage jobs.  Taking care of people who can't take care of themselves is a hard job.  Doing it can be a calling, and thank heavens for the many people who do it cheerfully and tenderly.

There just aren't enough of them.

Credit - University of Salford Institute for Dementia (CC-BY 2.0)If you or a loved one has ever been in a hospital, you know that ringing for help rarely results in someone coming quickly.  If that stay is in a nursing home, the wait will probably be longer.  The staff isn't right there, there aren't enough of them, and there are often other people asking for help at the same time.  If you're in pain or simply have to go to the bathroom, the wait can seem interminable.

If only you had a robot aide, standing patiently next to you, ready to help...

An even bigger help would be robots you could have at home when you are disabled or incapacitated. Most people would prefer to stay at home instead of going to a hospital or nursing home.  Many Medicaid programs have worked diligently to try to keep vulnerable people at home instead of being admitted to nursing homes, but there's only so much having an aide visit a couple hours a day a few times a week can do.

But a robot aide living with you could be more effective, and might actually be cost-effective about keeping people out of nursing homes.

Think about it: they'd never need to sleep, go home to their family, or take a vacation day.  They'd never be in a bad mood or make a careless move.  Helping you would be their only mission.

We're not quite there yet.  There are some tasks that we're not quite willing to have robots perform, especially on already fragile individuals.  But if we're trusting robots to do eye surgery, helping with bathroom or other sensitive tasks is certainly achievable, in the not-too-distant future.

Bernadette Keefe, M.D., did a deep, deep dive on robots in health care (starting with what a robot is, their history, and their uses in other sectors).  She included several examples of caregiving robots, including:

  • Zora, a "personal caregiver" from Softbank, interacts, moves, and helps with rehab.
  • Robear, from Riken and Sumitomo Riko Company, can lift patients from a bed.  It is, however, still considered experimental.  
  • Softbank's Pepper, which is intended as a companion.  Softbank claims Pepper can perceive and respond to human emotions.   

In addition, Toyota has a family of "partner robots" which includes a personal assist robot, a care assist robot, and Robina.  Not to be outdone, Honda has their own family of robots, including ASIMO, which they bill as "the world's most advanced humanoid robot."

Half of respondents to a Futurism survey predicted every house would have a humanoid robot, although there was widespread disagreement on the timing, with some thinking we were still decades out.  That may be pessimistic.  There's already Catalia Health's Mabu personal care assistant and the Aido "next generation social family robot," among others.

We're already getting used to personal home devices like Amazon's Echo, Google Home, and now Apple's HomePod, all of which can do a variety of virtual tasks  It is not at all far-fetched that'd we'll similarly get used to personal robots who can do physical tasks for us, including ones relating to our health.

With AI doctors and personal care robots, technology can at least help fill in current gaps in care, and maybe help provide better health care generally.

Bring on the robots!

The Robots Are Coming to Healthcare! was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.