As the global population ages, the number of older adults in need is growing faster than the number of skilled nursing providers available for support. Robots have increasingly been used to meet these demands and currently aid in a large range of tasks. Some include devices that help support staff lift patients, while others include robotic baby seals that help soothe those with dementia. With the advancement of robots, their roles have further become more complex and versatile.
In 2018 and 2019, one group of researchers tested a robot named Stevie at a retirement community of 300 residents in Washington, DC. Stevie, equipped with movable arms and a head displaying cartoon eyes and a mouth, was created to help researchers learn how robots can improve the experiences of staff and residents.
Stevie engaged in a versatile list of tasks, doing everything from entertaining (like calling Bingo and leading singalongs), to dismantling language barriers (by translating conversations between residents and staff). However, while preprogramed with some actions, Stevie was still primarily controlled by researchers who told it what to do next. In the future, these researchers intend to develop an even more useful and autonomous robot ─ one that can patrol corridors for wandering residents and clean.
In some ways, helping health care robots like Stevie become more autonomous will be difficult. For instance, they must be more advanced than Alexa, which has limited communication skills and can only answer a few questions at a time. In other ways, health care robots will likely adopt characteristics of those already established in other industries. For example, researchers should be able to program health care robots to navigate fixed corridors of hospitals like those programed to navigate warehouse and factory corridors.
Though the prevalence and usefulness of health care robots will grow, they will never replace human care. Robots cannot be used for decision-making tasks, such as offering medication or assessing whether a patient is ready to be discharged. With the goal of mitigating health care strain as the population ages, however, they can fill gaps in caregiving responsibilities so that residents have access to the best care possible.
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