Robots replacing workers in health care

Casper the robot is in development to serve seniors with cognitive disabilities in the home.

Casper the robot is in development to serve seniors with cognitive disabilities in the home.

His or her name is Casper. Casper is really an “it.”

Casper is also the future we need to start talking about – one where humans get replaced by machines. It’s no longer a matter of science fiction. It’s now.

Casper is still a little way off from coming to market, but Humber River Regional Hospital is counting on other robots to do the heavy lifting when it comes to moving materials around their planned new hospital. CEO Dr. Rueben Devlin is championing the fact that these robots will save operational costs that can be applied to front line care. Those “costs” just happen to be jobs that people are presently doing and using to support their families.

Still in development, Casper is a project by a private company – CrossWing – intended to answer the question of how we will find and afford all the caregivers we need when seniors make up 25 per cent of the population.

This is no joke.

Casper is not meant to do the heavy lifting humans presently do in home care. It can’t give you a bath or help you get up in the morning. Casper is meant for adults with cognitive impairment who may be able to live at home a little longer with help.

Casper is more like a computer on wheels — a computer that follows you around and tells you to take your pills or that it’s time to go to the kitchen and make a tuna fish sandwich.

Casper doesn’t necessarily make the sandwich. Casper shows you a step-by-step video of how to do it, and if you can’t find the bread, it will point in the right direction. The bread is in the cupboard.

The makers say Casper doesn’t necessarily have to be a nag. It can also remind you when your favorite show is on TV. Some may even come to find the machine better company than their human companions.

Given medication errors are a major health concern, such a robot may not only reduce the cost of care providers, but also admissions to the ER.

In Japan there are more ambitious robots in development that will do lifts as well as clean and monitor nursing homes. Commercial sale of these robots is expected in 2015. Asking price will be about $78,000.

As a society are we ready for this?

In a sense many gadgets already in our homes are simple robots.

The robotic vacuum cleaner that rolls around your house isn’t likely to take your job. If the vacuum cleaner malfunctions, it’s not a matter of life and death.

But what happens when such health care systems really do fail?

Devlin didn’t say what the back-up plan was during a presentation at last week’s Conference Board of Canada conference on health care sustainability.

One participant in last week’s Summit questioned the impact of the proliferation of such devices on cellular networks. When the network goes down from overuse, what happens?

For labour robots definitely come under the scope of technological change — many collective agreements already have provisions for such disruptive technological change.

Robotic devices are already making their way into our public hospitals. What’s evident is that robots will be creeping into sectors we previously didn’t expect, including home care and long term care.

Last year we wrote about the IBM Watson super computer. The presenter was clear that while the computer was meant as decision-support for doctors, it wasn’t meant to replace them. There are no such assurances with this next wave of devices, especially where they effect workers who have had traditionally less influence on the decision-making within the health sector.

Humber River Regional Hospital doesn’t obscure the fact that these machines will replace humans. They’ve even worked it out down to how many full-time equivalents will be gone.

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