12 October 2022

Are robots the answer for the growing demand in healthcare?

Technology is frequently seen as the go-to solution for societal challenges. Healthcare is no exception. Yet the deployment of robots in healthcare is still at an early stage, and after an initial hype in which healthcare institutions bought robots, many devices have ended up in the cupboard. The cause of this is twofold, according to lecturer Human and Technology Dr Janienke Sturm. The first problem lies in our collective perception and the second concerns the support among end-users, both the patient and care worker.

Functional vs Social Robots

The care sector needs solutions, suggests Sturm: "The recent report on 'houdbare zorg' (sustainable care) by the Scientific Council for Government Policy does show that the way we currently organise care is not sustainable. There is too much demand and too few staff. Technology is often seen as a solution, as the 'Way out of Scarcity' report by Gupta Strategists also shows." When we then talk about robots, we should distinguish between functional and social robots. Functional, often medical, technology offers many possibilities, according to the said report, but is not a sustainable solution. Sturm: "Think of such a Da Vinci robot, which can perform complex operations thanks to remote control. That is of course progress, but you are in fact making healthcare more expensive. It is expensive equipment, which in turn requires more staff for operation and maintenance. Moreover, you increase the demand for care because more and more can be done." Sturm sees more benefit in the use of supportive, more social technology, such as care robots that support personal care or e-health applications: "Especially for prevention, there is a lot of potential there, you can make people much more self-reliant, for instance in supporting chronically ill patients. Robots, but also apps, can relieve the burden of care in this way."

How do we deploy robots sustainably?

Deploying robots sustainably in healthcare is not so successful yet. Indeed; many robots are gathering dust in cupboards. This has to do with problematic implementation, according to Sturm: "Directors or management then choose to deploy robots for financial reasons or in order to be innovative. But the staff are not included in that decision and thus you miss a piece of acceptance and support for the use of robots. It is very important for a good implementation that all stakeholders are included, but also that there is enough support to deploy robots correctly and in their use." This starts in the design process, where the interests of all stakeholders must also come together. This is also where it becomes clear what the robot can do and what it will be used for, and that is key.


There are often several assumptions we make when it comes to robots. About what they can do, but also about the impact we make. We often expect too much or are very sceptical, Sturm explains: "Healthcare staff are actually worried that technology could get in the way of real contact with patients. Moreover, we often expect robots to be able to do everything, when in fact they are only good at limited, specific tasks. Think of help with dressing or bandaging. Including psychologists, patients and staff in that design process not only increases acceptance, because people know what the robot can and cannot do. The design itself improves, because it helps us to think about how we can work together with robots. So do a lot of collaborative testing and let patients try out robots at home and experience what they can and cannot do. That way, we will adjust our image of robots and you will remove much of the resistance." This also has an impact on the actual kind of robots we develop, Sturm argues. After all, these have to be specific: "There is no such thing as a robot that fits every situation. We need to develop robots for specific contexts. This helps the end user visualise what it is like to work with a robot."


Besides questions about robustness and modularity of robots, ICT development is also increasingly focused on emotion: how do we provide a meaningful connection between technology and humans? A nice idea that can help robots gain acceptance, provided you do it really well, according to Sturm, but future-proof. Moreover, there is a risk of an 'Uncanny Valley' effect, a theory that argues that an increasingly humanoid robot actually evokes increasing aversion. There is more to be gained from better implementation: "Let's solve the human side first before we start providing robots with emotions. You have to make sure robots meet users' needs and work properly with care staff. That also means looking at the specific needs and designing robots that meet them."

Dr Janienke Sturm is lecturer in Human and Technology at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences HRM and Psychology institute and also leading lecturer of the Fontys Centre of Expertise Health. The theme 'Robots in healthcare' is part of the annual Fontys University of Applied Sciences ICT showcase event: ICT In Practice. This year on 21 October at the Fontys ICT InnovationLab. You can still sign up to join!

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