Your Doctor, the Robot


December 3, 2014

**To receive this commentary directly to your email, click the "subscribe to the Health Freedom eNews" button above.


Will robots dictate medical treatment? In “Could Artificial Intelligence End the Electronic Medical Record Nightmare?” physician Kevin R. Stone says doctors, nurses and patients used to talk with each other to share information and solve problems, but now, “The electronic medical record has killed the oral science.” He explains:

“Doctors now hunt and peck for the information to share. Nurses stare at screens, taking half an hour to enter data, something that used to take three minutes. … [Doctors say] they can only see two-thirds of the patients they used to see if they have to spend their day entering data.”

He jests that artificial intelligence (AI) may be the answer: Apple’s Siri and IBM’s “Watson” could be used; Siri could input the data. Nurses and patients could dictate to it. And Siri could suggest “a less expensive alternative to a drug, a dressing or a therapy.

”But robotics is serious business. MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle warns about a robotic future in the provocative book, Alone Together. For example, in psychotherapy, “Computers can help with the diagnosis, be set up with programs for cognitive behavioral therapy, and provide information on alternative medications.”

Robot “companions” emerge. Paro, a small, seal-like robot, was created for Japan’s aging population. In 2009, Denmark ordered 1,000 Paros for nursing homes. Tim, a 53-year old whose mother is in a Boston nursing home, told Turkle, “I used to hate to leave her in that room. …I like it that you have brought the robot. She puts it in her lap. She talks to it. It is much cleaner, less depressing. It makes it easier to walk out that door.” His mother is still alone, but he feels better.

Robot machines may be required. Researchers and industry are poised to accept robots as a new standard of care, says Turkle. And nursing homes workers “seem relieved by the prospect of robots coming to the rescue.” But one woman worries about a Nursebot placed in a Pennsylvania facility:

“I am worried that as technology advances even further, robots like Pearl may become so good at what they do that humans can delegate elderly care entirely to robots. It is really worrying. When u get old, would u like robots to be taking care of you?”

Alzheimer’s patients are the first AI target. “[P]eople are most comfortable with the idea of giving caretaker robots to patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia,” writes Turkle. Current research envisions robots “for hospital patients, the elderly, the retarded, and the autistic.”

Could robots be used to ration care?  That’s my question. The most vulnerable – the old, the sick, the disabled – may soon lose access to human touch and the real care that comes from a human heart. As the Medicare cost crisis deepens, could “caring” robots be programmed to encourage shorter lives through assisted suicide?

If you can’t choose a human for your care, what does this mean for health freedom, medical ethics, and human dignity? Read Turkle’s book and consider how technology may soon be used for purposes that make you more alone, and as a patient, more vulnerable to health care powerbrokers and their computer programmers.

Supporting real care and caring by real caregivers,


Twila Brase, RN, PHN

President and Co-founder