Are robots the future of nursing?

If you look at predictions of the future from the past, many of them can seem quite silly. Time Magazine reported that, in 1956, one Swiss doctor publicly predicted that a miracle pill would likely be invented which would be capable of curing any illness. Another prediction from 1966 suggested that instantaneous mood alteration would be achievable via a single pill.

Likewise, many people in the past believed that the 21st century would be filled with all kinds of robot helpers. While there may be no miracle pills and self-propelled vacuum cleaners might be underwhelming, there still could be a chance that healthcare robots are on the horizon.

When you think of healthcare technology, you probably imagine patient portals and other HIM software, but some organizations are already turning to mechanical help of a different nature.

Robots in action
Experimenting with robot nurse assistance is already underway in academic institutions around the globe. At Duke University, researchers developed a robot nurse capable of moving bed linens, taking vital signs and delivering food. According to The News & Observer, the prototype robot isn't meant to replace nurses, but rather to help limit nurse exposure to highly infectious diseases such as Ebola. The university's robot is directly controlled by nurses and doctors in an adjacent room, who can speak to the patient via a monitor mounted on the top of the robot.

In Japan, companies such as Toyota and Honda are developing robots to help take care of the elderly. Japan has one of the highest life expectancies in the world as well as one of the lowest birth rates. This combination means that extra help may be needed to take care of the country's aging population. According to Alec Ross, a distinguished visiting fellow at John Hopkins University, robots developed in Japan run the gamut of humanoid assistants to bear-headed companions all the way to life-like furry animals which act as pets for nursing home patients.

Many of these machines are already quite advanced, but it will likely be some time before robots come close to having the advanced nursing skills of their human counterparts. They can, however, make great assistants when nurse shortages become a problem.

Robots can help doctors perform precise surgery. Robots can help doctors perform precise surgery.

The future of healthcare robots
Today's robots still have quite a way to go before they reach the level of those imagined in works of science fiction, but that reality may not be far out. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, licensed and registered nurses are among the occupations likely to see the most openings, and have the greatest replacement needs, by 2022. That kind of pressure could mean that robot research and production could expand rapidly.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Auckland, New Zealand found that most patients prefer robots to other forms of technology, such as computer tablets when it comes to answering questions. The study discovered that, when compared to a tablet, a robot scored better in terms of trust and desire for future interaction. These results are strengthened by a U.S. study which found that responsive robots are appealing to patients dealing with stressful situations.

It's possible that nurses could have robot assistance in the not-too-distant future. If current trends continue, it seems that both healthcare professionals and patients will respond favorably to these electronic companions.

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