Technology to Watch: Robotics

Technology to Watch: RoboticsAs healthcare becomes increasingly more complex, nurses must maintain the competencies necessary to deliver high-quality care. This includes the ability to respond appropriately to new technologies, which may have the potential to change nursing practice and/or nursing education. As patient advocates and frontline caregivers, nurses must ensure that new technologies support and enhance the human element in healthcare.

Robotics is the branch of technology that deals with the operation of robots—machines that can move, react to sensory input, and perform routine tasks on command. Robots have many advantages in healthcare, including reducing labor costs, creating operational efficiencies, and increasing precision. All of these things can contribute to better patient outcomes. When combined with computer science, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, or bioengineering, the applications for robotic technology in healthcare seem endless. Robots today can incorporate motion detectors, voice recognition software, cameras and microphones, microprocessors, GPS capability, and advanced sensors that make them increasingly useful in a healthcare setting.

Most people have heard of robotic surgical systems. These can help surgeons overcome the limitations of minimally invasive laparoscopic procedures and can give surgeons better control of instruments during open surgeries. There are also tiny “microbots” that can carry out precise tasks inside the human body—like clearing plaque from an artery or performing retinal surgery. In the lab and pharmacy, robotics can be used to automate routine tasks, and even send patient data right to the EMR. Some hospitals are already using robots for environmental disinfection and the terminal cleaning of patient rooms. And trials are currently underway to find out how robots can assist with the sterile processing of instruments. Other applications of robotics have a more direct influence on nursing workflows and patient care. These include:

  • Transporting supplies. Automated transport systems can move medications, meals, supplies, and specimens through hospital corridors and elevators, allowing nurses to spend less time away from the bedside. Nurses can also check on the status of a delivery and monitor its whereabouts in real time, rather than having to make a follow-up phone call. This technology has the potential to enhance both nurses’ and patients’ satisfaction.
  • Lifting and moving patients. These applications have several advantages over mechanical hoist systems. They have a wider range of motion than ceiling-mounted lifts and can come when “called,” unlike portable lifts that must be fetched by a person. They can be controlled by one person and don’t require a team effort. By moving a physical interface like a joystick, one nurse can lift and position even a very heavy patient, without risking injury to herself or the patient.
  • Recording patient data. In Japan, a robotic assistant named Terapio follows nurses on rounds. As nurses take vital signs, the robot sends the data straight to the EMR. It can also display current information about the patient’s history, drug allergies, etc. The system is said to reduce the time nurses spend on documentation, freeing them up for more patient-centric tasks.
  • Assisting physicians in the operating room. A report in HealthLeaders Media recently discussed the concept of a robotic assistant that can perform the functions of a scrub nurse. By using visual recognition technology, the robots can respond to a surgeon’s visual cues to pass instruments. The article is also quick to point out that a robotic nurse cannot advocate for the patient undergoing surgery.
  • Patient support. Work is progressing on robotic devices that can bathe bedridden patients or help them feed themselves by controlling a robotic arm. It’s important, with these technologies, that nurses balance this high-tech care with the patient’s personal preferences and need for modesty or autonomy. A patient who prefers human assistance with bathing should have that option, for example. 

As robots become more autonomous and more agile, and if nursing shortages materialize, it’s likely that hospitals will look into using robots to support or take over certain nursing tasks. Bedside nurses and nurse leaders will need to be involved in these decisions, to ensure that high-tech does not replace the “high-touch” care that nurses are known for. Robots may never be able to empathize with a cancer patient, provide personalized education about diabetes self-management, or decide when to advocate for end-of-life planning. Nurses will have to play a role in deciding when and where and how these emerging applications of robotics should be used.

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