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Rise of the robots: Will technology replace people in healthcare delivery?

In the latter half of the 20th century, the arrival of automated machinery in factories brought about sweeping changes to commerce and industry, with far reaching social consequences across the globe.

In purely economic terms, the ability of machines to carry out tasks on the production line at greater speed and with a greater degree of accuracy than people could manage brought about huge gains in efficiency, increasing output and creating the conditions for consumption-led economies.

But there were consequences to be paid. The move towards automation ended the huge demand for human labour industrialisation had created. In simple terms, machines put people out of jobs, and in industrialised areas, the economic basis for a way of life that had existed for a century or more was taken away.

Now, in the early part of the 21st century, we may be facing a similar scenario with healthcare. As populations across the globe increase and age, healthcare systems as they are currently organised are struggling to keep up with demand. The one light at the end of the tunnel is the rapid evolution of digital technologies capable of delivering faster, better targeted care which can reach into areas where there is most need.

Is it therefore inevitable that healthcare will go the way of the factories, and see human skill and labour replaced by technology? Will the NHS, the world’s fifth biggest employer, see employment levels plummet as front line staff become obsolete?

Rise of Robots

There are people who say yes. In the field of surgery, for example, there are plenty who see the emerging use of robotics as the start of the end for the surgeon’s profession as we know it. Capable of carrying out more complex procedures with greater accuracy and a near elimination of errors, robots are already helping to push back the boundaries of what surgical science is capable of.

One logical conclusion to draw from this would be that surgery carried out directly by human hands will eventually disappear altogether. The human role in the theatre would shift instead to that of technician or engineer, servicing the machine rather than the patient.

However, there are also some important differences between industry and healthcare which are likely to lead to different outcomes in the role automated processes play.

For one, healthcare does not have the same profit motive as industry. Robotics hardware and software is complex and expensive. When faster, more efficient processes mean more products to sell, there is a strong incentive to invest anyway. In healthcare, however, if there is a return on investment to be found, it is much longer term, and the short term pressure is invariably to keep costs down.

Removing Human Barriers

There are other reasons to think healthcare will retain more of a human touch. In surgery, will machines be able to deliver the same nuanced, personalised levels of aftercare, for example?

And then there are other kinds of technology which are just as likely to have an impact as robotics. Proximie’s augmented reality (AR) solution, for example, works not to replace the human role to improve surgical provision, but instead to increase opportunities for collaboration and the sharing of expertise.

Using mobile devices and AR software, Proximie removes barriers to where surgery can be delivered and who by. It allows specialists to communicate with, guide and oversee practitioners carrying out procedures in different towns, regions or even countries. In that sense it can be seen as a technology which makes the most of human expertise, as opposed to pushing it out of the way.

Only time will tell, but there is unlikely to be an either-or battle between robotics and AR in the future of surgery, or any other technologies for that matter. All have their advantages – if robotics can deliver more complex procedures with a higher success rate, AR is much faster, easier and cheaper to deploy, it can reach areas of greatest need more effectively. The future of surgery, and of healthcare as a whole, is likely to depend on making the best use of these benefits by deploying these technologies alongside each other.

Similarly, it is likely to also depend on making the best use of human expertise and technology working hand in hand.