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Help Wanted: Robot hospital workers with excellent communication skills

One of the many challenging side effects of COVID-19 is the isolation that hospitalized patients suffer during quarantine. Separating patients from the general public, family and staff is a necessary part of preventing further spread of the outbreak, but it comes at an emotional and psychological cost.

Being separated from your loved ones is a harsh reality many have faced this year. In one hospital in Mexico City, there’s a staff worker who’s been hired specifically to help remedy the situation. Oh, and did I mention they’re a robot?

A helping hand in Mexico

This robot identifies itself as LaLuchy Robotina as it travels room to room checking on COVID-19 patients. LaLuchy “moves around on wheels and has a camera and display screen enabling relatives and doctors to chat with patients or staff in full protective gear in the coronavirus ward.”

The robot “’…helps us with the mental health of the patient,’ said Sandra Munoz, who coordinates the hospital’s strategy against the virus, which has killed more than 60,000 people in Mexico.” Staff and patients alike seem to be adjusting well to the idea of using robots in the hospital environment, especially since they’re solving real problems in coronavirus wards.

With an obvious aim at reducing the chances of infecting others during treatment, LaLuchy is just one example of a world-wide trend utilizing hospital robots, acting as an artificial therapist’s assistant of sorts, not just assisting the patients, but their relatives as well. 

Open source, opening communication

Working towards similar goals is Italian researcher and robotics professor Antonio Bicchi, who has “developed a robot called LHF-Connect.” Bicchi has accomplished this using “… an open source and affordable robot that anyone can build”. Partly based upon iRobot software libraries, LHF-Connect is mobile and is controlled via remote. 

The robot can be connected to patient schedules, so hospital staff coordinate with the LHF-Connect’s operator who remains safely out of the range of the infected patients. This allows family and patients to communicate without any risk to staff.

Artificial animal therapy

In Texas, Sandra Peterson is integrating the use of “social” robots for a unique form of ‘pet’ therapy. As the Program Director of the University of Texas’ nursing department in addition to her own geriatric house-call practice in Dallas-Forth Worth, Peterson is able to see first hand the effect that COVID-19 has on those who are separated from loved ones throughout their illness.

Petersen’s “bot of choice is Paro, an adorable, playful device from Japan that helps her patients feel less lonely.” She states:  “The role of social robots like Paro is becoming more important, especially as we see this sector of our population targeted by this virus… It’s built for a time such as this.”

At $6000, Paro weighs equal to an infant, and looks like a baby seal. Invented by roboticist Takanori Shibata, the chief research scientist at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Paro may be helping Petersen’s patients, but it has also inspired some ethical hand-wringing about the role of robots in caretaking. 

More human than human?

In the midst of this virus outbreak, it’s a perfect scenario to work out the deeper questions of ethics and the effect on patients and society. One has to wonder if similar worries over the emotional impact of wearing masks across society are all part of a greater conversation. One might say that the greater question is how we are to remain human in times that require a great measure of humanity?

The truth is, that we see wide-reaching evidence that humans form a very similar bond to A.I. companions like Paro as they do to pets, but Paro comes with the benefit of low maintenance that attendants tend to prefer over the real thing. Studies using Paro have even shown-short term memory improvements for Alzheimer patients in previous studies.

From nursing homes to COVID-19 wards, we see the growing use of robot assistants, helping caretaking and companionship, and the common thread for now, seems to be that it is “better than nothing” but still not a substitute for a real human presence.

There are numerous other digital companions entering the scene, from Japan to Israel, Atlanta to Mexico City, bringing the open market competition which helps lower the price and increase the range of options from seals to dogs and other artificially furry friends. 

It seems that we’re all being thrust into the future at a quicker pace since the coronavirus came along. This presents a good opportunity to ask ourselves whether robots as caretakers, assistants, and emotional companions are a good idea, or whether they provide a temporary go-between while we seek ways to maintain human closeness on a safe, but more meaningful level.

Top Doctor Magazine
Top Doctor Magazine

Top Doctor Magazine is a magazine from doctors for doctors and patients. We cover everything from cutting-edge medical techniques and procedures to enterprising doctors, dentists, surgeons, naturopaths, chiropaths, orthodontists, and more who are thought leaders within their own medical practice and changing the way we all experience medicine for the better.

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Brianna Connors & Derek Archer Co-Editors