Hospital Robots Are on Their Way

March 16, 2012
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Hospitals are labor intensive, 24 x 7 institutions, making it tempting for hospital administrators to replace people with machines over the long term. High tech machines that extend doctors’ skills or presence –such as the da Vinci robot for prostate surgery and videoconference robots on wheels—get a lot of the attention. But the big impact in terms of number of workers displaced will be in other areas: lower skilled jobs such as aides and orderlies, and eventually nursing.

Hospitals are labor intensive, 24 x 7 institutions, making it tempting for hospital administrators to replace people with machines over the long term. High tech machines that extend doctors’ skills or presence –such as the da Vinci robot for prostate surgery and videoconference robots on wheels—get a lot of the attention. But the big impact in terms of number of workers displaced will be in other areas: lower skilled jobs such as aides and orderlies, and eventually nursing.

According to today’s Wall Street Journal (The Robots Are Coming to Hospitals) it’s already starting to happen. So far at least, the staff are welcoming the robots and don’t feel threatened. But there are only about 1000 such robots deployed nationwide. Attitudes may change when it becomes clear that these are not novelty items, but serious competitors to humans in performing important but routine tasks. There’s no reason robots can’t continue to expand their roles into more and more of what humans do. (Maybe there will be a new version of the John Henry story to read to the kids.)

There’s good news in this if hospitals use robots to decrease costs and increase the reliability of processes, which is what I expect. There’s certainly the potential that something will be lost in the way of human contact. But at least for some patients relying more on robots and less on people will be a comforting thing. Think of the patient or family who’s scared to push the call button again for fear of getting on the nurse’s bad side. If things are done right, nurses will actually have more time to perform the most high value, personalized functions, and job satisfaction will increase.

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All this supports my view that the pending nursing shortage is nothing to worry about. To the extent that nurse workforce predictions fail to account for the tasks that can or will be done by robots, they will exaggerate the number of nurses actually needed. Nursing will be an entirely different profession a generation from now, and many of the low skill jobs in hospitals will disappear completely.