Emerging Tech 2013: Robots in Healthcare: Help or Hurt?

Picture Credit: PARO

Happy New Year everyone! As you know, I follow Asia/Japan tech trends. I was watching an NHK World journalistic piece on robotic therapy for Dementia using a baby seal called PARO and wanted to investigate this trend more.  Interestingly, there is a sizable debate amongst medical professionals and sociologists on whether robots like PARO can replace the human element versus aiding health professionals caring for patients. 

Some Background

Picture Credit: PARO and Toyota Partner Robot
Robotic assistance is nothing new as we have seen the popular cartoon series, Jetsons, with their robot maid Rosey hilariously humanized. PARO has been around since the early 90s and its generation spurred on toys like "Tickle Me Elmo" or "Furby." The car juggernaut, Toyota, was an automation company before it launched its car business. Toyota Motor Company's Toyota's Partner Robot program promises to comercialize robots in the coming 2013 to provide designed to provide support in nursing and health care like walking assistance, patient transfer, balance assistance and walk training. 

The Debate

Health care professionals are in the highest injury-risk categories. According to OSHA, health care professionals have seven times the average incident rate for musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), aka Back Injuries, than freight/dock workers. So, robotic assistance in this area is a no brainer right? Well, the economies of scale has still hampered the robotic industry in this area where it is still out of reach for the average person. Tmsuk, which introduced the Tmsuk-4, six years ago, is still around $100,000. Not even leasing/rental programs at that price tag can be affordable. PARO is also around $5,000. 

Another concern, is more sociological. Many articles and reports cite that patients want with feelings and empathy. Is PARO deceiving people into thinking it is real? Is PARO any different than a stuffed animal? Remember Bandai's Tamgotchi or smartpet? There is an effect called the "Tamagotchi Effect" where people are emotionally attached to their machines or in-animate objects.

Still, many patients want human physical contact and interaction. Patients see a nurse's touch as comforting. 

SocialGreg's Uptake

The problem for Japan and other aging populations is providing enough healthcare professionals to support them. The median age in Japan is 45 years old and in the US is 37 years old. The cost pressures is another area that the healthcare profession is constantly challenged with. Just look at your raising healthcare insurance rates. Where robots can come in can be relieving these healthcare professionals in mundane tasks- lifting patients, moving food trays and linens. 

Robots still have a long way to go in terms of human interaction. The baby-boomers are not as computer savvy as the current generation so their interaction with machines still feel un-natural as opposed to children who interact with iPads on a daily basis.  So, this may change in the future. The robots best chances for integration is in augmentation not replacement for the healthcare givers.

The many stakeholders in healthcare (robot manufacturers, family members and caregivers; healthcare providers; technology providers; aging or disabled individuals) all have similar goals in improving the quality of life towards the patient: independence, preserve dignity, and empowerment.  We just need to figure out how to meet in the middle in 2013 and beyond. 


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