Hospital Robots

What is to become of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS)? The 55,000 doctors who are referred to as ‘junior’ despite having anything up to ten years’ work experience, have just lost their appeal for better compensation. One of their chief grievances was the government’s proposal to save money by removing existing wage incentives to work at weekends and rebranding these antisocial hours as an intrinsic part of the vocation.

hospital robots

Matters are further aggravated by ongoing threats by Westminster to stifle immigration from the EU. 5% of NHS staff are natives of other EU countries and this figure rises to 10% in the case of doctors. [1]

Here then, is an example of an organisation that might benefit from the introduction of robots and there is precedent to support the idea.

Two hospitals in Belgium recently installed robots in their reception areas to accompany patients to their appointments. Their robots have a face and body designed to resemble a human and have been used in paediatric wards to help reduce children’s anxiety prior to treatment.

More common in hospitals, for now, are transporter robots. They are electrically-operated, slow-moving objects that push or pull meals, drugs or prescriptions from kitchen to patient bedside, from pharmacy to ward nurse or from doctor to pharmacy. They have a detailed map of the hospital in their ‘brain’ and sensors to detect unexpected obstacles, broken lifts or other surprises. They cover an astonishing 115 miles daily at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center where a fleet of 25 robots are in operation and the hospital expects to amortise the total outlay of $6m (purchase and retrofit) within three years.

Those savings relate, of course, to reduced staff costs. A report released by market research firm Forrester in June [2], suggested that 7% of US jobs would be displaced by cognitive technology over the coming decade. Martin Ford, author of ‘Rise of the Robots’ is one of the harbingers of human resources doom who predicts a rise in unemployment as artificial intelligence embeds itself into industry. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) has, unsurprisingly, countered this dismal outlook with an upbeat report [3] showing that one million industrial robots were directly responsible for the creation of three million jobs.

The UK has a fledgling robotics industry, much of which has been nurtured by the Bristol Robotics Lab. Given the country’s industrial design history, there is no reason why the sector should remain small for long, particularly if an organisation such as the NHS were to start making volume orders. The San Francisco robots are made by Pennsylvania company, Aethon and the Belgian hospital bots were developed by Softbank, the Japanese company that made the UK news in July by acquiring the leading British chipmaker, Arm Holdings. Japan is an important manufacturer of robots but South Korea makes even more, according to the IFR.

Yesterday, a data specialist in the South of England spent 11 hours attempting to ignite his WiFi kettle using voice recognition software. If a data specialist needs half a day to resolve interface difficulties of this nature, then there seems little immediate threat to jobs from artificial intelligence. On the contrary, if NHS hospitals were to place some of the more mundane tasks in the electronic hands of robots, the UK might be able to redeploy skilled medical staff to more important areas, reducing waiting times and, into the bargain, create jobs in a growing, national robotics sector.

[1] Full Fact GB. EU immigration and NHS staff. 11 July 2016. 
[2] Forrester. Robots, AI will replace 7% of US jobs by 2025. 22 June 2016. 
[3] IFR. Positive impact of industrial robots on employment. 21 February 2011.