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In healthcare there's nothing like the human touch

Tagged In:  Allied Health, NHS, Nursing

It's likely that robots will play an increasingly important role in healthcare in the near future. However, it's clear that they will support doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, not replace them.

In a previous blog about new tech innovations, we featured RIBA, a robotic nursing assistant developed by Japan's RIKEN-TRI research centre. RIBA is just one of several medical robots which could be coming to our hospitals in the not-too-distant future.  More than 200 companies are already involved in healthcare robotics and there are also several research organisations working on medical robotic technology, including the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, which has recently received an £1 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC) to develop four new robots for healthcare and emergency response.

However, the robotics revolution doesn't mean that lots of our highly-trained, hardworking healthcare staff will be out of a job. Robots will support, not replace health professionals, relieving them of routine, repetitive tasks, such as taking blood, disinfecting operating theatres and perhaps even minor surgical procedures. That means doctors, nurses and allied health professionals will have more time to focus their skills and experience more productively in other areas of patient care.

"We are not trying to replace nurses," said Margie Molloy, an Assistant Nursing Professor at the USA's Duke University, where a team of engineering and nursing students has created a prototype healthcare robot. Named Trina (Tele-Robotic Intelligent Nursing Assistant), it can perform simple tasks, such as delivering a cup, a bowl, pills and a stethoscope to a patient. Its face is a computer screen on which an actual nurse’s face appears.

"Robots can perform repetitive tasks like checking blood pressure and weight," wrote GP Ann Robinson recently in The Guardian. "But I can't see us replacing practice nurses with robots. Our nurses do so much more than just the task in hand. A recently bereaved person comes in, ostensibly for a blood test, and the nurse checks if they're eating, how they're coping, updates medication and provides vital human contact and warmth. I just can't see a robot doing that."

Research by Dr Elena De Momi and colleagues at Italy's Politecnico di Milano indicates that humans and robots can effectively coordinate their actions during high-risk procedures such as surgery. This should lead to improvements in safety because robots don't get tired and can efficiently complete precise movements without loss of concentration.

"As a roboticist, I am convinced that robot co-workers and collaborators will definitely change the work market, but they won't steal job opportunities," explained Dr Momi. "They will just allow us to decrease workload and achieve better performances in several tasks."

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