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Does the Medical World Need Humans?

 Caregiving studies and new technology leads to more questions regarding medical care and robots.

It may seem like a scene out of science fiction: A robot helps older adults with housework, doles out medications, and conducts research into the best treatments. But the future could be sooner than we think.

A recent study at the Georgia Institute of Technology says that older adults are more receptive to using robots for many tasks to keep them independent, including medication management. Using the Aware Home, or a simulated living environment with a working kitchen, bedroom, and bathrooms at Georgia Tech, professors and students showed 21 older adults the functions of Willow Garage, Inc.’s Personal Robot 2, or PR2.

For instrumental activities of everyday living (IADLs), such as management of medication, 50% of those surveyed would prefer a robot, while 19% had no preference. For enhanced activities of daily living, such as learning new skills and engaging in hobbies and other social activities, 34% preferred a robot, while 25% had no preference versus a human.

“Older adults tend to be later adopters of different technologies,” says Cory-Ann Smarr, a graduate research assistant who worked on the study at Georgia Tech. “New is always new, but we suspect that people’s preferences towards robots are influenced by their knowledge of certain robots.”

This has led to a new study from the university about having these robots be able to aid in a healthcare setting, such as skilled nursing or assisted living. Once again, using the PR2, Georgia Tech professors have examined the preference for human or robotic assistance — and according to the study, many of the participants in the follow-up study would be open to robotic assistance for certain tasks, including in IADLs. In fact, 47% of those surveyed would prefer a robot for IADLs, while 30% had no preference.

This could lead to a slippery slope. With the University of Southern California’s Institute of Creative Technologies’ development of Ellie and the ability to have PR2 to take care of certain everyday tasks, it’s a valid question to wonder if robots will replace humans in healthcare.

Robots have already been helping in healthcare for physicians, but where does the line get drawn? Telemedicine is a tremendous buzzword in the industry, and sometimes people get so concerned about whether or not it’s possible versus whether or not it’s a good idea.

However, many of the researchers into the use of robots in healthcare seem to have a level head in terms of how to use robots. Smarr, like many researchers, says there is the potential for them, but that potential only goes so far.

“We don’t advocate for replacing humans,” she says. “[Robots are] for augmenting or helping them perform certain tasks they want to do.”

Georgia Tech research echoes this sentiment as well. When healthcare professionals were asked about robots in medical assistance, they said they preferred it only in checking vitals. There was no preference for a robot in catheter and bandage change tasks, but for IV use, diabetic, and ostomy care, professionals would rather have a human. In the survey, for medical purposes, 26% would prefer a robot, while 17% had no preference, but 57% would prefer human help.

Smarr says that, for the future, there should be careful consideration as to how to implement robots into different positions, particularly in healthcare. But, of course, there is much more research to be done.

Reina V. Slutske is the assistant editor of MD+DI.

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