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Eldercare Robots are Ready to Disrupt the Healthcare Industry

Image by Francis Ray from Pixabay

Looking after people is one of the most resource-intensive things to do, and it is incredibly challenging to be happy, enthusiastic, and good-natured when under fierce pressure. Thankfully, we have an excellent solution: eldercare robots (1).

Everyone benefits from technology, then why we can’t use it to offer support to our aging population.

Even though assistive robots have not reached the level of The Jetsons, an animated sitcom from the 1960s in which Rosie the robot maid did all the chores people usually try to avoid around a futuristic house. Reports suggest that more robotic assistants will make a standard feature in older people’s homes in the next few years.

These eldercare robots can help them take care of themselves, offer them emotional support, and allow remote access for healthcare providers. We can even utilize this technology in retirement homes to entertain residents and help with cleaning. These robots are already taking over basic hospital tasks, which frees nurses to focus on patient care.

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The Need for Eldercare Robots

The need for automated care is growing as the population worldwide is aging. There are more than one billion people over the age of 60. According to World Health Organization, these numbers would rise to 1.4 billion by 2030, one-six people. Taking care of these individuals will need additional 6 million nurses.

However, as the number of elders increases, the number of caregivers has not increased correspondingly. And it makes supply and demands a major issue when it comes to eldercare.

In Japan, where almost one-third or about 28% of the population is 65+ (2), there could be a shortage of almost 1 million caregivers by 2025 (3). The US also estimates that the percentage of people aged 65 and older will increase to about 26% of the total population by 2050 (4).

Likewise, in Europe, the size of people aged 65 and over has also increased at a significant pace in the past two decades (5). As per Eurostat, there are less than three adults of working age, between 20 to 64, for every European citizen aged 65 or more.

However, the relative lack of caregivers for the elderly keeps its costs high and creates a burden on families and caregivers.

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Shortage in Healthcare Workforce

There has been a lack of care workers for the senior citizens, which keeps eldercare costs high (6).

Last year, The Atlantic reported that about one in five healthcare workers had left medicine since the beginning of the pandemic (7).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the healthcare industry in the USA has lost almost half a million workers since February 2020. Another data from a survey research company, Morning Consult, highlighted that 18% of healthcare staff have quit since the pandemic, while 12% have been laid off. It also estimates that as many as 31% of the workforce are considering leaving their employer.

And as we see more proliferation of anti-aging breakthroughs and longer life spans become normal, the demand for caregivers will increase (8).

However, as this labor gap increases, healthcare costs also increase.

It is worth highlighting that the median annual cost of in-home care was about 54,912 USD, whereas the median cost for a private room in a nursing home was about 105,850 USD in the USA in 2020.

need for eldercare robots
Cost of Care Trends (2004 – 2020), Image: Genworth

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Eldercare Robots Easing the Healthcare Burdens

As a core part of a patient case, nursing needs to constantly adapt to changes in the entire healthcare system and the wider economic and societal environment. And one of the key factors driving these changes is the increasing number of elderly in the world population.

Combined with an existing shortage of healthcare workforce for nursing and caregiving, accommodating the elderly needs within hospitals, elderly-care facilities, and home settings has become a societal challenge.

And one solution for it is the development and higher adoption of eldercare robots.

Using medical robots to offer caregiving to the elderly will vastly reduce the present astronomical cost of elderly care. In addition, it will also pick up the slack about the number of caregivers available (9).

In other words, medical robots are a lucrative industry.

The International Federation of Robotics World Robotics 2018 Service Robots report suggests that between 2016-and 2017, there was a 73% increase in the sales of medical robots. These robots also accounted for about 2.7% of all professional service robot sales (10). Notably, the Japanese government has already offered subsidies to care facilities to buy eldercare robots since 2015.

There are several use-cases of eldercare robots:

  • Performing small tasks like fetching food, and water
  • Handling social and emotional needs with entertaining games and other activities, reminding the elderly of events and appointments, and offering social engagement
  • Offering care in the treatment of issues like dementia
  • Helping seniors with mobility and offering transportation support
  • Patrolling corridors at night, performing cleaning duties, and periodic monitoring

As medical robotics grow and develop, the applications of eldercare robots in homes and senior care facilities can increase the quality of life for elders and their caregivers.

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Creation of Eldercare Robots

As we mentioned, Japan is in an ideal position to play a key role in adopting eldercare robots. It is the world’s most prominent industrial robot manufacturer (11). The country has also formed a collaboration with Europe to deploy culturally competent care robots that allow for adaptation across cultures (12).

The project named ACCRA makes robots for daily tasks, mobility, and companionship, and it involves a co-creation model between Japan, the Netherlands, France, and Italy (13).

The European Union has invested in developing a hospital robot with sensors to record vital signs, reducing patient monitoring costs to an extreme level (14).

These specially-designed eldercare robots have the potential to ease the burden on healthcare workers within hospitals and nursing homes. At the same time, medical robots can also undertake general assistive roles at home without compromising the quality of the care and improving overall life quality.

Here are two types of eldercare robots based on their roles:

  • Nursing Robots: These eldercare robots serve as supplemental healthcare workers at homes, elderly-care facilities, and hospitals. They can perform physical tasks and help combat loneliness and inactivity among the elderly population. These medical robots can also perform routine tasks like measuring patients’ vital signs. With remote-controlled telerobots, healthcare providers can use them as interactive caretaker duties and use them as an interface to communicate with elderlies over distance.
  • Assistive Robots: These robots can help the disabled and elderly population pursue independent, healthy, and productive lives. Based on their primary needs, assistive robots can offer assistance to end-users via social or physical interaction.

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There’s Still a Long Way to Go

However, for now, these eldercare robots have a long way to go before they can substitute human interaction (15).

More robots are made to be socially responsive instead of apathetic like the chatbot technology we often encounter on customer service lines. Most tech companies put a lot of effort into anthropomorphism, making robots move and look like humans. When combined with advanced artificial intelligence, there is a real possibility of making “robot friends.”

There are several benefits of interactions with AI, even though some research indicates that interactions with AI are not as socially beneficial as those with humans (16).

People have emerged from robots with positive emotions. More importantly, they have fewer negative emotions and concerns about the presentation, like fear of negative evaluation when interacting with robots than when interacting with other humans.

In other words, with a combined effort from tech companies, human-computer interaction specialists, and psychologists, there is a real possibility of building companions for people who have none.

At the same time, researchers also predict a hybrid-care feature, where eldercare robots only assist with goal-oriented tasks like medication dispersal and sample collection. Human healthcare providers would still be responsible for offering emotional support (17).

Several tech ethicists also believe that we need to set robust standards for eldercare for robots, similar to nursing homes having standards around cleanliness and physical safety. We can also consider legal restrictions on how long we can leave seniors without human contact, with only robots taking care of them.

However, for now, there is so much the world can learn from Japan when it comes to caregiving to seniors with the help of technology (18). The country is currently undertaking a major search to enhance its eldercare robots to detect and predict healthcare changes among individuals. And by 2025, they are planning on expanding this technology to the US and Europe as the global population continues to mature.