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Would you be happy for a robot to wash your hair?

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Last weekend I watched the BBC programme The Big Question, which explored whether robots and artificial intelligence could do more harm than good. 

One area of discussion centred on health and social care and the potential for robotics to provide assistance with daily living such as getting out of bed, eating and drinking, and washing and dressing.

The programme raised some interesting questions for nurses about how robots could be used to carry out essential care and free up valuable time.

Several of the panel members made the assumption that hands-on physical care could be divided into tasks that could be effectively carried out by robots; for example, there are now robots that can wash hair. While I accept that this has huge advantages in terms of staff time, is it beneficial for patients?

“I suspect that technology would be viewed as a replacement”

Ideally, while a robot washed a patient’s hair the nurse or care assistant would have more time for vital patient interaction that is often missed, particularly in community care. However, I suspect that technology would be viewed as a replacement for rather than an adjunct to the work of the nurse.

Over recent years there has been considerable discussion about what should be delegated to unregistered staff. The introduction of the nursing associate role has brought this debate to the fore with fierce discussions about the role of NAs in medicines administration. But is this a function that could be better done by robots? Could artificial intelligence remove human error from the drug administration round?

“Historically nurses have been slow to engage in technology’s development”

It is clear that technology is going to play an increasing role in care delivery but historically nurses have been slow to engage in its development.

Last week the health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested that a “technological revolution in the NHS” has to be funded in order for it to survive.

“The potential of technology to change direct care is huge”

Writing in The Daily Telegraph he suggested that we need to look at opportunities offered by artificial intelligence in diagnostics and patients being able to receive test results on their smart phones. This week we reported on a ground-breaking project at University College Hospital, which aims to develop an algorithm that uses data to improve patient flow. It is thought to be the first large-scale use of artificial intelligence in the NHS.

The potential of technology to change direct care is huge but the important question is whether it is acceptable to patients.

“Patients and the public need to be consulted about what they view as acceptable use of technology”

In discussions about new technologies nurses need to challenge the assumption that patient care is just a series of tasks. They need to articulate the value of the nurse-patient relationship and work with developers to identify how robotics aimed at direct care delivery could be used to support this relationship.

Most important, patients and the public need to be consulted about what they view as acceptable use of technology now and in the future. Future generations may be more at ease with the idea of robot-assisted care than our current generation of older people.

Over the next few weeks we will be featuring a series of blogs looking at technology in healthcare. We hope you will engage in the debates and challenges as the NHS seeks to harness the best that technology can offer patients.

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