Robots Will Aid in Health Care as Population Ages

The medical needs of the aging adult population will increase the market for robotics to assist in health care, according to a speaker at the RoboBusiness Conference in Boston.

Surgical robots are commonly found in hospital operating rooms, said Holly Yanco, an associate computer-science professor at the University of Lowell in Massachusetts. Assistive robots will follow the same route, she said on Wednesday, and their use will increase as the population ages. However, this technology needs to overcome some barriers before the industry thrives, she said.

"Affordability is incredibly important," she said. Health-insurance plans did not cover the US$25,000 robotic wheelchair that Yanco discussed. The manufacturer stopped selling the device, which climbed stairs, last year because health plans did not reimburse the company, she said. Patients who need the robotics cannot afford them unless insurance companies pay for them, she said.

Financing concerns also extend to companies and academic institutions attempting to develop costly robots. There is no funding institution to support the health-robot field, Yanco said. U.S. government health departments do not see robotics as their domain, while the technology being developed is too far from commercialization for venture-capital funding.

"Right now a lot of this is happening in academia. The wheelchairs are 20 years out," Yanco said.

Human-robot interaction also requires attention. In one example, Yanco showed a robot that was used at a nursing home. The device talked to patients, but did not recognize voice commands. Patients interacted with the robot by pressing a button on the device's front. However, they also answered the robot when it asked them a question. The different communication methods created a disconnect when the two parties interacted.

"Not to pick on the project, but this happens all the time in human-robot interaction," she said. "So we obviously need to think about our human-robot interactions."

Human-robot interaction issues also translate into how patients operate robotic wheelchairs and electronic limbs. In another example Yanco gave, patients who tested a robotic arm were offered the device free after the trial. No one wanted the limb because is was too difficult to use, she said.

Robots will not replace humans in providing health care, said Yanco. Rather, the most successful uses of assistive robots in health care involve humans and machines working together.

"The companies that have been successful selling robots, there is a human in the loop," she said. "There is a health care professional involved."

Patients, family members who may care for the patients and the medical community all need to trust the technology before the assistive-robots market increases, Yanco said. Robots also must be designed to assess if the system is working and to adjust to a patient's needs. Safety and reliability concerns and government regulation also explain why the space is not thriving.

Despite the challenges, the assistive-robots space is growing, Yanco said, especially as the baby boom generation ages.

"We want the baby boomers at home," she said. "It is cheaper [than assisted living] and they're comfortable there."

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