Europe is running out of nurses. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the number of nurses and midwives in Europe is “not adequate to meet current and projected future needs”. Staff shortages are already acute, and current demographic trends will aggravate them. Some of the worst-affected countries are in Eastern and Southern Europe, as healthcare professionals leave for higher salaries in the West and North. What’s the solution?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Jthk, who wonders if robots might one day be employed to help take care of the elderly. Is he right, or is this just science fiction?
To get a response, we spoke to Alexandre Mazel, Innovation Director at Softbank Robotics, a company which designs and manufactures robots for personal assistance, including in elderly care homes in Japan. What would he say to Jthk?
In my opinion, the technology is ready. Today one of the biggest problems facing older patients is loneliness. And we have done initial tests in hospitals and believe that care-giving robots can reassure older people when they are left at home alone, because it reassures them that help is nearby; for example, when the doorbell rings or if they fall.
For us, the most important question during the test runs was whether patients were willing to accept having a robot living with them. That’s why we placed robots in a hospital room for a week, and the patient could have conversations with the robot about when their next appointments were with the doctor, what was the time and date, etc. At first, they didn’t want a robot in their room, but when we showed them the robot and informed the patients what they would do, they found the robots cute and after a week together, they were convinced.
The hardware is ready. We already have a 1.2 meter robot that is robust enough for hospital use, we just need to polish the software. So, this is not science fiction; the robots will be ready for large-scale adoption in one or two years.
Next up, we had a comment sent in from Helena, who is very critical of the idea of robots in the care sector. She feels that a bond with a robot can never replicate a human relationship, and she’s worried that automation threatens human jobs. But what do nurses think? Would they be happy to receive help from robot assistants? Or do they fear for their jobs?
To get a response to Helena, we spoke to Paul De Raeve, Secretary General of the European Federation of Nurses Associations. Is he worried about jobs in the care industry?
Today, there is a shortfall of more than two million nurses across the European Union. In the Belgian region I work in, there are currently 9,000 vacancies available for nurses that cannot be filled. This means that the nurses currently employed have to do more work for less money. So I can not understand how robots can be a threat in such a situation.
If you look at the latest hospitals in Germany, everything is designed to be robot-friendly. This helps us, as nurses, to do our job better… This is not about rocket science, but about little things. If a robot goes around in the evening and asks all the patients if they need to go to the bathroom again, it can help the nursing staff. I know institutions in which robot dogs give companionship to patients. It’s about compassion.
From a care perspective, we do not see robots as a threat at all – they can rather support us, especially if you think about the current working conditions… Twenty years ago we were going to our doctor and had to ask them everything. Today we inform ourselves online as patients and discuss our research with the doctor. That’s patient empowerment! I may seem too enthusiastic about it, but young people are used to new technology. What is the problem? Decisions always have to be made by the caregiver, not by a robot.
Would you let a robot take care of you? Could robots help take pressure off overworked nurses? Or is the solution greater investment in humans? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
Image Credits: (cc) Pixabay – imjanuary; Portraits: (c) Mazel, (c) de Reave