They already perform surgery, take blood and help people walk. But can robots replicate vital human interaction?
Remote control device being tested on a surgical wardSoon doctors could consider robots as part of a multidisciplinary team. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Robots don’t do my job as a GP yet, but computers are definitely the third person in the room in every consultation. The computer can feel like an attention-seeking teenager, asking random questions that demand a response. A person comes in to discuss their suicidal ideas or recent cancer diagnosis and the computer flashes reminders about smear tests and flu jabs.
But to ignore the computer is to run the risk of missing vital information. Integrating the machine into the face-to-face encounter between doctor and patient is an art form most of us never master. And working with a robot is an even more daunting prospect.
A report by McKinsey shows technologies available today could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60% of all occupations could see up to a third of their constituent activities automated. Does primary care, as practised in the UK, fall into the 60%?
Robots are already used widely in surgery. Robot-assisted or robotic surgery, such as the da Vinci system, allows surgeons to access hard-to-reach areas of the body via tiny incisions, operating with more precision and control than they could manage if they held a scalpel in their hand.The last job on Earth: imagining a fully automated world
Robots can perform repetitive tasks like checking blood pressure and weight. Robots such as Veebot can even take blood. But I can’t see us replacing practice nurses with robots. Our nurses do so much more than just the task in hand.
A recently bereaved person comes in, ostensibly for a blood test, and the nurse checks if they’re eating, how they’e coping, updates medication and provides some vital human contact and warmth. I just can’t see a robot doing that, although I accept not all practice nurses manage it either.
With the cutbacks in community services, especially district nursing, and the growth in frail and housebound people, I can see the appeal of remote-controlled robots like Anybots. They can interact with patients, check living conditions and arrange appointments with healthcare professionals when necessary.
In the same way, people who live in remote areas can benefit hugely from access to telehealth. This technology allows emergency consultations with patient and clinician using a tablet or PC and has been used for strokes, heart attacks and burns in particular.
Exoskeletons – robotic devices that help paralysed people to walk – are likely to be increasingly used to allow carers to lift people who can’t move after a stroke, spinal cord injury or extreme frailty. The price remains prohibitively high at the moment but devices like this may augment the role of physiotherapists and occupational therapists in future.
So I think robots are likely to take over many of the tasks we do in general practice. The doctors of the future may come to view the robot as a member of their multidisciplinary team.
I would welcome a robot in our practice, but they’d need to meet the same requirements as everyone else: a necessary skill set; high standards of professionalism; a sense of humour; and a willingness to make the tea when it’s their turn.
Story Source: Guardian