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How Broadband-Enabled Robots Could Reduce Healthcare Costs

Posted on by Fletcher Kittredge

Chart: Health care costs are rising faster than inflation, but outcomes are not keeping pace.The cost of healthcare is a major force in shaping the future of the US economy.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, we are paying a large portion of our GDP to healthcare and that portion is increasing.   In 1980, as a nation we spent $265 billion in healthcare, 9% of a GDP of  $2.8 trillion.  In 2010, the U.S. paid $2.6 trillion for healthcare, 18% of a GDP of $14.6 trillion. Further, the New York Times observes that while we have a significantly larger population, the population increase alone does not account for the level of increase: spending per capita adjusted for inflation has tripled during the same period.  This is not a sustainable trend.   Worse, the value delivered has not matched the pace of spending.   The quality of U.S. healthcare outcomes has not tripled during the same period.

For the U.S. to have a superior healthcare system in the future, improvements in a wide variety of areas are needed.   Technology improvements are vital but only one area.   Further, technological improvements in the past have a mixed record at improving outcomes. Frequently, they do not lower costs. With that in mind, the use of semi-autonomous robots holds great promise for improving healthcare and lowering costs. Recently charismatic examples of semi-autonomous robots which do sophisticated micro-surgery have been in the news: When Robotic Surgery Leaves Just a Scratch.  However, I believe the greatest promise for semi-autonomous robots is in home attendants for healthcare.

Robots can give more personalized and attentive care because one or more robots can be dedicated to a patient 24hours x 365.25 days a year. It is economically infeasible to do the same with nurses. However, the great advantage of semi-autonomous robots is where the care can be delivered. For financial reasons, most health care is delivered in centralized locations: hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics. Semi-autonomous robots can deliver the care in the patient’s home.   Hospitalization is expensive and inconvenient, as is traveling and scheduling outpatient and doctors’ visits. A solution delivered at home promises to be significantly cheaper and much more convenient.

If you are having trouble visualizing the advantages, think of an elderly person you know who is not able to live at home or requires frequent outpatient care. Let’s imagine they move back home and they now have a wheelchair. This wheelchair is motorized, and is capable of climbing stairs.   It has arms which are capable of gently helping the occupant out of bed in the morning and into the bathroom, where the wheelchair can assist with any necessary functions.   The wheelchair can assist the patient in and out of chairs. It can open doors and take the patient outside for a walk.   The wheelchair is constantly monitoring the patient’s vital signs, both when the patient is in the chair and out. The wheelchair understands human speech, including gestures. Never losing patience, it can even remind the patient to take their pills.

Most importantly, the wheelchair is semi-autonomous. Via a high-quality, reliable Internet connection, it is controlled remotely from a local hospital. The wheelchair has a high quality video link to the hospital, which a nurse or doctor can use to interact with the patient. The wheelchair can instantly detect any problems and report them back to the hospital.

A vital component of a semi-autonomous robot is the control by a human, potentially from a great distance. For the foreseeable future, there is no substitute for human conscience, consciousness and judgment. The system doesn’t work if there isn’t a human in the loop. For this reason, it is absolutely vital that there be a broadband network that is fast, reliable, secure and cost-effective. The robot must have a communications tether to a hospital at all times.

The implications to Maine’s economy of the above model are significant. Maine has the oldest population in the nation. This older population is geographically dispersed. Delivering healthcare services to them is very expensive and the quality in all rural areas is not equivalent to the best urban areas. Semi-autonomous healthcare robots could be part of the solution.

Getting old and feeble is not much fun. Neither is being sick. Personally, I would prefer not to be under the care of a robot.  However, I would far rather be under the care of a robot in my own house than in a hospital or a nursing home.


2 Comments for How Broadband-Enabled Robots Could Reduce Healthcare Costs

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. As we age our environments become important to our mental as well as our physical state. Bringing technology to our homes via broadband and mobile devices will help in providing the necessary care that we all will require at some point either for ourselves or aging parents. The adoption of this technology will be increased not only by budgetary restraints but the new generation of health care providers who are learning and developing new tools only imaginable in the past.

  2. Chuck Hazzard says:

    I agree that robots as you discuss may help in the future, the more immediate solutions will focus on patches, implants, and clothing which monitors a patients vitals and uses wireless to transmit the data in real time to healthcare professionsals. The mobile health market is making great headway and 2013 will definitely see an even sharper uptake and release of these technologies.

    All and all, this will require reliable and robust communication links, which also offer the security required by HIPAA and other regulations.

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