Autonomous Robots Are Improving Healthcare Access for Elderly Patients

autonomous robots

As one of the most exciting new developments in the medical industry, robot assistants are bridging gaps in care for elderly patients.

From using digital health tools to reduce preterm births to reaching underserved communities with telehealth, we’ve just started to scratch the surface of what medical technology can do. Even companies like Amazon and Rite Aid are trying to capitalize on opportunities to transform the healthcare landscape. 

One of the most exciting places where we’re seeing new technological developments is in elderly care. The reality is that staff shortages and a rapidly aging population have led to gaps in adequate resources for the elderly. To address this challenge, the SARA (Social & Autonomous Robotic health Assistant) project is working to improve care in nursing homes and other facilities with the help of autonomous robots.

What Is the SARA Program?

SARA is a consortium-led project involving scientists from around the world whose goal is to improve the quality of healthcare in hospitals and nursing homes through the use of robots. Specifically, SARA aims to introduce robots as social entities that can interact with patients or take on time-consuming tasks without requiring a human operator. The hope is that this will help address the shortage of healthcare professionals who are struggling to treat large numbers of elderly patients.

As of now, the program is still in the test pilot stage. There are currently two tests being run in the Netherlands and Finland, where autonomous robots are working alongside nurses to care for patients. The SARA robots are being tested with first stage dementia patients on exercises that could prevent them from accelerating into the second stage of dementia. In this situation, SARA robots work on simple exercises with patients when the nursing staff does not have the time or resources to do so. 

Though the program is not yet ready to be carried out on a major scale, it is scheduled to continue development in the coming year. In 2020, the team will implement a navigation algorithm that will extend the range of activities that automated assistants can engage in by letting them move freely within certain areas of the nursing home.

SARA’s potential for improving elderly care cannot be overemphasized. Currently, it is estimated that 13.8% of nurses deal with the consequences of heavy pressure at work every week. These stressors include both practical issues, like medication errors, and more general problems, like reductions in the quality of care that patients receive. With automated assistants, there are fewer opportunities for human error — and healthcare professionals are also able to devote more time to working one-on-one with patients.

The Impact on Healthcare at Large

There are three main benefits of implementing artificial intelligence, like SARA’s robots, in healthcare.

  1. A reduction, or elimination, of human error. 
  2. A significant reduction in healthcare costs for both providers and consumers. 
  3. A democratization of access to treatment. 

The SARA program is just one of the many ways that AI is being used to improve the quality of healthcare for the elderly. By autonomously taking over tasks, SARA’s robots can simultaneously lift some of the burden form healthcare providers, as well as reduce the rate of human error. This technology also emphasizes patient centricity by increasing the amount of time healthcare professionals can spend working with their patients face-to-face. 

Despite concerns over the impact on healthcare providers, SARA’s robots and other recent AI developments are meant to aid doctors and nurses, not replace them. They are designed to work collaboratively with medical experts and care staff so that the elderly receive the best possible treatment.

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