How artificial intelligence (AI) can support healthcare workers — and not only in a pandemic

Check out our article at The Future of Work. This article was also published on the campaign site.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that analogue work processes are limiting our productivity in a number of sectors and in health care in particular. It is the people working at care facilities, hospitals and doctors’ practices who are bearing the brunt of the slow progress of digital transformation. Staff are (partly) still working under extreme conditions: excessive overtime is gnawing away at their physical health while the suffering of their patients is increasing the emotional burden.

It is therefore particularly worthwhile to look into how achievements of Industry 4.0 can reduce the excessive strain on the healthcare sector. The good news is that the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) with robotics and sensor technology provides a myriad of use cases for simplifying medical processes and improving chances of recovery. Speech recognition and sensors can, for example, facilitate the automation of digital data collection as required within the course of treatment or by law.

All of these ideas focus on the goal of providing patients with the best and quickest medical care possible. This includes recognising and meeting patient needs early on. In the light of the staff shortage in the healthcare sector, it could make sense to use AI to complement treatment. This would make it possible to use speech recognition and synthesis in scheduling appointments, selecting a care facility or transferring patient data to doctors.

In the case of out-patient rehabilitation measures or discharge from hospital, AI-driven robots can help doctors to maintain contact with their patients. Digitalization also has another advantage: data and patient records do not get lost in the post but are collected and transferred digitally. This eases the burden on healthcare professionals and reduces the risk of infection during a pandemic.

The robots that have already been tested and put to use in a healthcare setting come with another compelling feature, too: they are more sensitive than physiotherapists when helping people who have suffered a stroke or who are experiencing joint problems to regain mobility. This makes the often painful rehabilitation a more pleasant experience for patients and reduces the rate of recurrence and late effects. Moreover, robots in rehab often have more time on their hands than human therapists.

Studies show that robot-assisted treatment accelerates patient recovery and attribute this to optimised intensity levels. Sensors enable robots to quickly identify whether an exercise is too hard for a patient or whether a certain part of their body is under too much pressure; they recognise when patients are in pain and help them avoid new injuries.

A shortage of caretakers is expected in aging industrial nations.

“Prevention is better than cure” is the paramount principle in healthcare. It thus makes sense to use AI not only in hospitals but also at home. However, experts estimate that it will take at least another 15 years before robots can provide the same kind of assistance and care in our own four walls as in a hospital. Smart data analysis, on the other hand, is already possible today.

Apps and wearable devices enable the automated recording and analysis of basic vital signs such as pulse rate, body temperature, movement and humidity. The identification of patterns can, for example, point to an imminent heart attack. This can avoid an emergency and lead to less painful and shorter treatment. At the same time, it eases the burden on the healthcare system as patients who would normally end up in hospital can undergo out-patient treatment and rehabilitation.

In medical facilities, however, small measuring devices and daily aids are not enough. The staff shortage in hospitals and care facilities is so severe that researchers are currently working at full stretch to develop humanoid robots, for example within the collaborative research network PADERO (Participatory Design in Elderly Care).

Japan, the partner country of PADERO and the MEJOIN consortium, will face a shortage of 370,000 nursing staff by 2025. Young nursing professionals are in short supply in Japan’s rapidly ageing population where life expectancy is as much on the rise as in many other industrialized countries. It is therefore important to relieve the burden on nursing staff while at the same time preserving the human touch in health care. Studies show that the adequate use of robots and AI can indeed reduce the strain on nursing staff, for example with regard to group exercises for physical and cognitive ability. This gives healthcare professionals precious time for individual patients and thereby strengthens their job’s personal human face that has taken a back seat far too long.

Michael Hechtel, M. Sc.
Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU)
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Institute for Factory Automation and Production Systems (FAPS)

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