Robot wards: RCN congress discusses the future of AI technology in health and social care

With the use of robotics advancing into healthcare, what ramifications are there for staff and user privacy and safety?

With the use of robotics advancing into healthcare, what ramifications are there for staff and user privacy and safety?

Picture: iStock

The robots are coming. In fact, some are already here.

Robotic technology is beginning to feature more prominently in health and social care, with robots already undertaking various complex procedures in medicine and surgery.

The implications for nursing staff of these advances will come under the spotlight at this year’s RCN congress, in May in Belfast, where delegates will be asked to consider the consequences of assigning tasks to robots. From a senior nurse’s perspective, this means a range of ethical, moral and legal questions to consider.

Mauro Dragone is an assistant professor at the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, a joint venture between Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh universities.

‘My goal is to develop practical assistive robotic technology that can help provide personalised care,’ he says.

Ethical issues

Dr Dragone is well aware of the ethical issues associated with that goal. ‘Robotics researchers don’t work in a vacuum,’ he says. ‘All of these devices, all this robotic technology, sound useful but, if they’re not accepted or if there are concerns about privacy and safety that mean the robot is not used, then the technology is no use.’

For this reason, there is a strong emphasis in his work on participatory design involving the end user and other stakeholders such as carers. ‘We are trying to relieve carers’ burden and make their lives easier,’ he says.

The congress discussion is likely to highlight examples of robots that already play a part in health or social care. These include ‘robocats’, which can provide isolated older people with company, remind their owners to eat their meals and take medication on time, and even locate lost possessions such as spectacles.

And Paro, a robotic therapeutic baby seal, is said to help calm people with dementia. Its Japanese inventors claim it stimulates interaction, and improves the ability of patients or care-home residents to socialise.

Some of this may sound marginal, trivial even. But set against a backdrop of an ageing population with growing care needs and a diminishing nursing workforce, exploiting robotics for all it can offer seems a logical progression.

A publication last year by UK-RAS, a network of key players in robotics and autonomous systems, suggests that assistive robots could address the growing shortage of health and social-care workers.

More efficient

‘Suitably configured robots could assist professional carers to be more efficient, allowing them to focus more on human-to-human aspects of their work, and reducing the physical demands of caring, such as lifting and carrying, and consequent risk of injury,’ the report states.

It also suggests that personal mobility, eating and drinking, dressing and toileting are all areas in which robots can help.

But would patients be willing to be dressed by a robot?

PwC, the professional services company, suggests many would. Its research, Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare, found that almost 40% of those surveyed would be prepared to engage with artificial intelligence or robotics for their healthcare, with men considerably more willing than women.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger people were the most willing but even among those over 55 one third said they would be happy to use robotic support.

In health and social care, much robot technology is still developmental. There is a lot of research going on but so far there are few examples of assistive robots being used, says Dr Dragone. ‘The robots are expensive and it’s simply not practical to leave them to operate autonomously.’

The door has been opened, however. ‘We need to give help to the millions of carers around the UK who are not properly supported,’ Dr Dragone says. ‘So yes, we need this technology.’

Further information

Daniel Allen is a health writer


This article is for subscribers only