Robotic health care is coming to a hospital near you

Medical robots are helping doctors and other professionals save time, lower costs and shorten patient recovery times, but patients may not be ready. Our research into human perceptions of automated health care finds that people are wary of getting their health care from an automated system, but that they can adjust to the idea – especially if it saves them money.

Hospitals and medical practices are already using a fair amount of automation. For instance, in one San Francisco hospital and other places, delivery robots – about the size of a mini-fridge – zip through the hallways delivering pills, bringing lunch to patients and ferrying specimens and medical equipment to different labs. Some hospitals are set up for delivery robots to open remote-control doors and even use elevators to get around the building.

[embedded content] Robots can navigate a complex hospital environment.
Robots can also assist with more complex tasks, like surgery. Their participation can range from simply helping stabilize a surgeon’s tools all the way to autonomously performing the entire procedure. Perhaps the most famous robotic surgery system lets a surgeon operate full-size, ergonomically friendly equipment as a remote control to direct extremely tiny instruments what to do inside a patient’s body, often through extremely small incisions.

[embedded content] A da Vinci Surgical System robot demonstrates how it can help a user do very sensitive tasks, like peeling a grape.
Robots are also beginning to serve as caregivers, especially for older people. The world’s population is aging, increasing demand for assistance with daily chores and medical tasks, as well as checking on patients’ well-being and safety. Many of those jobs are tiring, often thankless and relatively low-paying for people, but robots can help with tasks as diverse as cleaning, getting out of bed and other daily needs.

Medical service robots can even provide companionship, to reduce the isolation felt by many older people. In one study, a robotic companion was more successful than a regular plush toy at helping dementia patients communicate with their families.

[embedded content] A robotic assistant welcomes patients to a medical practice and discusses general health issues.

How do people feel?

Robots can do a lot, but people don’t necessarily accept them in those new roles. A lot depends on how easy the robot is to interact with and the patient’s own views about new technology and the emotions they’re feeling, such as fear about an upcoming medical procedure.

A human-like robot can be more acceptable – but only if it’s not too similar to a real person, because the differences can seem creepy and unsettling. That can discourage people from trusting and interacting with the robot.