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Are you ready to work alongside robots?

Robots are already being used in some UK healthcare settings, and the trend is set to continue, says the RCN’s e-health lead

Robots are being used in some UK healthcare settings, and the trend is set to continue, says the RCN’s e-health lead


A care home resident with a robotic pet. Picture: Alamy

‘The future’s already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.’

Those prophetic words, spoken by the American author William Gibson 25 years ago, often ring through my head when I’m looking at yet another press release from a tech company about the next robotic device that’s going to revolutionise healthcare.

Whether we like it or not, some inventions we might once have thought of simply as something from science fiction are already being used in health and social care. But what sort of robotic technologies are we talking about, are they really going to help patients and can they replace the care given by nursing staff?

These questions were addressed in a timely debate on the issue at RCN congress in Belfast – timely because the Topol review set up by the government to look at the impact of robotics, digital tools and genomics (the science of genome function, editing and mapping) on healthcare jobs and education is due to report back in just over six months.

Robotic pets in care homes

The UK is behind some other countries in its use of robotics in healthcare, but I know of several examples already in use. At two care homes operated by Care South in Dorset and Devon, robotic dogs are being used to supplement the real animals the homes allow in for pet therapy. The homes say this is helping to reduce isolation and stimulate memory – especially in residents with dementia – as well as increase sensory engagement.

Several hospital pharmacies in the NHS are now using robots to pack prescriptions. The associate director of nursing at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, Scotland, says this is saving nurses time, as they don’t have to physically go to the pharmacy, as well as reducing dispensing errors.

‘The prime argument from those in favour is that robots can be programmed for some tasks, giving nurses more capacity to carry out work only they can do’

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics is developing a ‘socially competent robot’ called SoCoRo to deliver ‘behavioural training’ for adults with autism spectrum disorder.

It seems that robots are being successfully used in other countries to reduce loneliness and isolation, particularly among older people.

So some elements of that future are definitely here. But is that a good thing? The prime argument from those in favour is that robots could free up staff time in nursing and social care, as they can be programmed for some tasks, giving nurses more capacity to carry out work only they can do.

But what if some employers conclude that robots cost less than humans, and use them to replace staff?  Will patients accept robots providing elements of their care? Most importantly, can a robot ever replicate the compassion or clinical decision-making skills integral to nursing?

Engaging with AI

Interestingly, some of the only research we have on people’s attitudes to artificial intelligence (AI) in health and care settings, carried out by the consultancy firm PWC, shows a big divide on this issue between men and women and between different age groups.

Far more men than women – 47% compared with 32% – say they would be willing to engage with AI in this context. Younger generations are, not surprisingly, much more open to the idea than older people – 55% of 18-24 year olds would be willing to engage, falling to 33% for the over-55s.

For all of us who work in healthcare, it’s a fascinating conundrum – and one we are going to be hearing a lot more about in the coming months and years. Who knows, we might even see a robot proposing the debate on this subject at a future RCN congress.


 

Ross Scrivener is RCN e-health lead

 

 

 

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