Posted by: ayrshirehealth | January 9, 2013

Robotics in healthcare: hogmanay musing by @gargatuan

Hogmanay Musings

Driving into work this morning on this last day of 2012, I was listening to a BBC World Service discussion on robotics which then touched on the subject of robotics in health care.  Robot manufacturingThe broadcaster outlined with enthusiasm how the vision of the 1950’s was for robots to undertake the mundane, repetitive tasks in society and to free up human beings to do more interesting and creative activities.  He reflected on how this had been achieved in such areas as the auto industry, where companies had the resources and expertise to invest in robotics, but that robotics had still to cascade significantly into every day areas such as the domestic and healthcare environments.

Robotics in healthcare

As the cost and complexity of robotics reduced in the future, he looked forward to new ideas for the use of robotics in health care.

Robotics HCPSomething was niggling at me: “robotics…. “health care”.  There was an uneasy counterpoint here that needed a resolution.  Were these two concepts not contradictory, at least between the “robotic” and the “care” element of health care.

How could the soulless process of automating healthcare complement or contribute to the essence of health care which is surely the person to person interaction, the empathic relationship which supports the individual to maximise their health outcomes.

I toyed with my own concept of what I perceived robotics to be:  The repetitive automated action of that which requires no conscious thought or intervention.

I Googled it just in case I was off track:

“the development of thinking computer systems, knowledge engineering, machine learning, neural networks”

Mmmn…times are clearly moving on.  My somewhat Chaplin like concept of robotics was more linked to the great 1930’s epic “Modern Times”, than the current view of a dynamic, thinking and learning mechanised process that could adapt to the environment.

Non-direct care tasks

I reflected on the current role of robotics in health care.  The work of my good colleague Michele Caldwell Director Of Pharmacy and her team in NHS Ayrshire and Arran in introducing robotics into the dispensing of pharmacy at Crosshouse Hospital.  I had been privileged to view this at work and was amazed at its efficiency and by the benefits to patients and staff as it streamlined the preparation of pharmacy products for the individual patient.

I also thought about Forth Valley Health Board’s use of robots to transport supplies at the Royal Hospital in Larbet.  13 Robots busy away undertaking tasks such as delivering food trolleys, managing linen disposal, sorting mail etc.  Much of their activity however, is subterranean, and they never actually come into contact with the public.  Perhaps that’s just as well as they are unlikely to give a welcoming “good morning” as they pass.

But both of these examples do not relate to that direct patient care interface: that domain which is surely unique to human interaction?  They do not involve a need for empathy of for creativity on seeking mutually acceptable care interventions.

Hands of patient care

Ray Blanco highlighted in a recent blog, that the world is at the cusp of significant developments in robotics, with the consumer market being worth around $24 billion in 2012.  He gives the example of the impact of automation in agriculture which has been very significant both in terms of reducing costs, but also on the labour market.  Robotics HCP 3Ray gives the health care example of CareBot in the USA which is a robot designed to assist with care duties and to interact by voice commands.

Are we really close to supplementing hands on patient care delivery with robots?

A quick look at the online brochure for CareBot leaves me feeling that this is still an aspiration, rather than a reality.  The whole concept of robots in that direct care arena is a persistent one however.  The European Robotics Forum held a workshop in Odense in Denmark this year at which it showcased a range of research on robots in healthcare and welfare.  The allure of finding a product which can meaningfully assist older people to maintain their independence for longer be that at home or in residential care, has become a powerful motivation.

We do need to differentiate here between assistive technology such as telehealth and telecare, from true robotics.  The former has already taken off in the same kind of arena and is making significant inroads and improvements.  The latter is still to find the same degree of traction, but perhaps, just perhaps.

Healthcare is a people business

While technology continues to assist us in getting the right things, to the right place, at the right time, it strikes me that no matter how advanced our science becomes, it will never provide “care”.  Healthcare will always be a people business:  Delivered to people in need, by people who care.  The human ability to empathise and respond to individuals as individuals is unique and irreplaceable.

Robot Director 2DirectorBot

As I turned into Crosshouse Hospital with a sense that I had resolved in my own mind how these two concepts could be reconciled.

I wondered just how long it would be until they introduced DirectorBot into healthcare management…..

@gargatuan (Jim Crichton) is Director of Primary Care and Mental Health Services in NHS Ayrshire & Arran

Next week:  @docandrewmurray writes for #ayrshirehealth on the importance of exercise for us as individuals and as a nation.



  1. […] Robotics in healthcare: hogmanay musing by Jim Crichton. […]

  2. […] happens if there are robots in a place where the human touch has been considered so important in Robotics in healthcare: hogmanay musing. Derek Barron’s consideration of whether mental health nurses should wear uniforms in A […]

  3. […] was followed by Jim Crichton who shared his thoughts on robotics within the healthcare setting.  He considered the difference […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: