Robo-Nurse: Coming Soon to a Hospital Near You

By Kal Kaur

Even the least imaginative among us will concede that nursing care combined with robotics could be a good thing.

After all, robots don't make mistakes or get fatigued, and they’re more reliable and precise than human nurses. Robo-nurses taking vitals doesn't sound too farfetched, but what about a robot giving sponge baths? That requires some imagination—but it's happening now thanks to researchers at Georgia Tech. Robots are poised to change the face of healthcare.

Japan was the first to recognize the need for creative sources for nursing care. With an aging population and a fertility rate death spiral, Japan will literally be unable to meet the nursing needs of its elderly. Japanese officials long ago began collaborating with industry to develop robots to supplement nurses in the day-to-day care of its senior citizens.

Image credits: Photos.com.

Palro, the humanoid therapy robot, has been a resounding success. Palro wanders the halls of long-term care centers playing games with residents, singing and dancing with them, and engaging them with puzzles and quizzes. Palro can interact with people: Ask him a question, he will deliver an answer; answer a quiz question incorrectly, he will patiently explain why your answer is wrong and provide you with the right one. He winks, smiles and even flirts with his audience. A "smart potty" capable of traveling to a patient's bedside and assisting him onto the commode is also under development. It can flush, clean and deodorize itself after each use.

In the US, in addition to Cody the sponge-bath-giving bot, robots are replacing nurses in stressful, high-precision roles. Penelope, a voice-controlled scrub nurse robot, can find, deliver and retrieve surgical instruments and perform a complete inventory after the procedure to make sure all instruments are accounted for.

Researchers say the increased accuracy and precision decrease surgical errors by reducing the cognitive load on surgeons and eliminating complications resulting from retained instruments. DARPA sponsorship spurred researchers at Purdue University to develop Trauma Pod, a mobile surgery bot designed to aid trauma surgeons in the battlefield.

HStar Technology has developed RoNA, a robot that assists with lifting and transporting patients. With nearly 50% of nurses experiencing back injuries over the course of their careers, using a robot for heavy lifting can save thousands of hours of missed work and millions of dollars in medical care.



RoNA  - nursing assistant. Video courtesy of HStar Technology.

There is also the da Vinci surgical system. Its four robotic arms can be controlled remotely to perform complex laparoscopic procedures. The applications of this robot on the battlefield are obvious; what's often overlooked is the system's ability to deliver top-notch surgical capabilities to remote, underserved areas. A physician in New York could perform cutting-edge surgery on a patient in rural Tennessee using the da Vinci robot.

Robo-nursing is still in its infancy, but the stakes are high to increase the performance and capabilities of healthcare robots. The coming shortage of healthcare providers requires creative care-giving solutions, and government money is footing the R&D bill. Robot nurses are here to stay.

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