There seems little doubt artificial intelligence (AI) and robot-based technology will soon be playing a significant role in helping us to look after our older people living in care in nursing homes.
In Japan, companies are developing ‘carebots’ designed to help people stand up and they can even lift, carry and swing them from their beds into a bathroom (1).
In Canada, the University of Toronto has been trialling Ludwig, a small robot that interacts with care home residents to help detect early signs of dementia (2).
Can robots care?
Closer to home I was lucky enough to see Softbank Robotics’ Pepper robot in action at our local Healthcare conference for customers held in Birmingham earlier this month (October), which included a look at the use of technology and AI in the sector.
Currently used by Middlesex University for outreach work and demonstrated to us by Robots In Action, Pepper certainly has some potential for providing a concierge-type service in a care or nursing home.
The internet-linked, Japanese-built robot engages well in conversation with a friendly-sounding voice, while fluidly gesturing with hand, arm and body movements. Pepper cannot move around but looks at whoever is speaking, the eyes blink and the head and body follows sound and can give directions, the latest news or weather reports.
With staffing one of the biggest challenges for care home operators, there’s definitely going to be scope for some of the tasks, particularly in nursing, to be taken over by AI and robots. A robot will be particularly useful if it’s capable of observing and monitoring patients and alerting staff if something is wrong.
Pepper is useful for bringing the capabilities of AI and robotics to the attention of the industry, but robots in care homes are still a bit further down the road yet.
In the short term, the application of technology in the care sector will be to create better systems for recording and evidencing activities – such as issuing of drugs for example – to ensure care is delivered safely, cost-effectively and with a proper audit trail.
The need for easy to use, practical administrative systems is huge.
At the other end of the age spectrum, I recently visited a children’s nursery and noticed that staff carrying lots of paper around with them containing hand-written care plans, even though there was an automated care plan system in place.
They told me the technology was difficult to use and plans weren’t accessible on their phones – an oversight in today’s world. The nursery appears to have spent money on a system no-one is actually using – a worst-case investment scenario.
So, if we want to use technology to improve systems administration, it’s got to be user-friendly, capable of integration with existing technologies and utilise effective tools, such as mobiles, for the job. In today’s financial climate, the cost of buying and operating effective systems is a major issue, too, requiring a strategic approach with careful thought about long-term objectives.
Greater focus on care
When it comes, rather than replacing people, AI and other technology should eliminate some of the duller, routine jobs, freeing staff to focus on the important personal caring aspects. For example, at our conference Preston Walker, healthcare diet specialist and head chef at Oak House Care home in Rutland, described how diets designed for people with difficulties swallowing, for example, have to be created specially.
However, as he explained, such food doesn’t have to be a homogenous-tasting, blended mush, it is possible to prepare meals that look and taste interesting, too. This, of course, takes more time, but the hope is that, with AI increasingly being used, staff will have more capacity to deliver quality-of-life enhancing care like this.
Head of Industry, Public Sector & Healthcare at Barclays Bank
26 October 2018