Robo-Doctors? Or Robo-Nurses?

Wired (H/T Instapundit) has a nice article by Daniela Hernandez on the coming of “robo-doctors.” Not  yet quite what our sci-fi imaginations desire, but still an important development on its own terms:

Charlie Huiner, the vice president of InTouch Health care … sees robo-docs rising … His company is developing robots that allow doctors to “provide their care and expertise” remotely, he said at the second day of the Wired Health Conference.  Huiner doesn’t call his robots replacement doctors. He calls them conduits of care. The robot’s patented autonomous capabilities let a flesh-and-blood doctor on the other side tell their android helper what to do. “It is as easy as tapping a point on a map or a patient room [on an iPad] and the robot will go there,” Huiner told Wired.

He showcased the company’s new ‘bot, RP-VITA, or Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant, at Wired Health with company CEO Yulun Wang teleconferencing in from another location. “It’s like the movie Avatar, but for medical applications,” Wang said, appearing on the robot’s monitor-head, which has two eye socket-like cavities. (They’re a user-controlled, eye-friendly laser pointer.) The humanoid ‘bot, which InTouch developed with Roomba-maker iRobot, also can interface with third-party apps.

This technology in effect combines remote-conduits (doctor at different location; machine with patient); locomotion (tell machine where to go and it goes there); robotic capabilities and sensors to do things like take temperature (capabilities that will presumably get more sophisticated over time); and AI capacities for assisting the remotely-located doctor to do diagnosis.

There are important roles for automation, AI, and robotics with regard to the doctor’s role in “seeing” a patient – diagnostic computers will likely become increasingly important adjuncts for the doctor.  But my guess is that most of the genuinely “robotic” activities in health care will turn out to be ways to assist nurses, orderlies, and others dealing with patients in much more basic functions.  That is, the functions that are about physical movement by the machine with regard to the patient.  I don’t believe this will involve replacing nurses, but instead shifting them from some routine and physical tasks both to tasks they already perform that require judgment about patient needs as well as new tasks – increasing the nurse practitioner role while using machines to help with other things.

Beyond that, I venture that there’s a whole world of robotic and cyborgian machines waiting to emerge for the assisted living, or pre-assisted living, care of the elderly.  I spend some time these days seeing relatives at an assisted living facility; one takeaway – I’d be curious whether there is any market research on these things – is that the elderly tend to see these machines not as dehumanizing them by making them deal with machines, but instead a way of maintaining their independence through technology.  It’s not likely we’re limited in the technological possibilities to those scooters advertised on TV for Grandma.  Whether there will be the research and development funding to come up with these tools and bring them to market – and whether they can be cost effective by comparison to humans over time, I don’t know.  What is your prognosis for medical, nursing, elder care, rehab, and other such machines and technology – all kinds – from either a technological and business model standpoint?  (I’ve opened comments on this post.)


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