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Analyzing the Potential of Robot Nurses in Enhancing Cost-effectiveness in Patient Care


Even surgeons may one day be replaced by machines. Robotics coupled with AI are—or are projected to be able to— perform a wide range of functions once thought to be solely in the domain of human behavior.

But nurses are more than just highly skilled medical professionals. They are caregivers who offer vital support to people during their most vulnerable moments.

Do robotics have a future in patient care, or are there some jobs that are best left in the hands of humans?

In this article, we explore both sides of the conversation in the hopes of painting a clear picture.

The Case for Robots

Healthcare in the United States has two major problems. For one thing, a significant number of hospitals remain dangerously understaffed. While the Covid inspired “Great Resignation,” has slowed, it hasn’t changed several core facts that have been plaguing the nursing profession since well before the pandemic.

The first of those facts? Even during the best of times, more than half of all nurses leave the impression entirely after just five years on the job.

The other problem is that not enough new nurses are coming up from school to replace the ones that left. This has created a personnel crisis with no ready solution.

The other problem is cost. While many factors contribute to why healthcare-related expenses are so crippling in the United States, payroll is at least one of them. Hospitals are staffed 24/7, and while not many people are making the case that nurses are overpaid, their salaries are naturally factored into the bill patients get at the end of a visit.

Introducing robotics could help reduce those costs over time. The machines would, of course, cost a fortune. But in the long run, they would be less expensive than paying for the salary and health insurance benefits of a full-time employee.

Whether or not those cost-saving benefits would actually get passed onto the patient is, of course, debatable. Still, for an industry desperately in search of cost-saving, efficiency-infused solutions, the introduction of robotic technology seems like a reasonable solution.

The Case Against Machines

But is healthcare only about efficiency? Nurses provide patients with a reassuring experience during their stay at the hospital. Certain aspects of care— particularly when it comes to fostering a positive mindset amongst patients— require human intervention.

This includes:

  • Emotional support: Nurses can provide an empathetic response that machines can’t replicate. Studies show that having a kind person offer a listening ear can have a significant benefit on the patient’s outlook, which in turn improves their chances of experiencing a positive healthcare outcome. Hospital stays can be a traumatic experience, but kind nurses can make a big difference in reducing feelings of isolation while fostering a positive outlook.
  • Nurses build trust: Keep in mind that one of the biggest variables within the hospital setting is the patients themselves. They need to consent to care. They need to follow the caregiver’s recommendations and be forthcoming and honest with all of their questions, comments, and complaints. This fundamental dynamic between the patient and the people caring for them exists on the strength of a social bond. The patient needs to be able to trust the people who are responsible for their care. That level of trust may be difficult to establish with a machine.
  • Nurses empower their patients: Of course, nurses aren’t just responsible for providing care. They are also advocates for their patients, empowering them to make their own choices and stay informed about what is taking place during their care. That advocacy is another factor that machines may not be able to satisfactorily replicate.

Of course, it is difficult to say that a hypothetical machine isn’t capable of providing the above-described benefits. However, it is safe to say that these aspects of care feel uniquely human, and there are currently no indications that people are ready to psychologically connect with machines on the same level that they do a caring nurse.

The absence of empathy and advocacy in care could have a significant impact on patient outcomes, and even the likelihood of people pursuing care.

A Middle Ground?

All other factors notwithstanding, the healthcare industry does have a problem that will require a solution sooner rather than later. The personnel shortage is a bill that has already come due, and healthcare will need to find cost-effective solutions to their problems.

Hospitals should look for ways to reduce costs and improve their staffing. Here are some solutions that may strike a more satisfying balance.

  • Improve operational efficiency: Hospital operations can be revitalized without the need to bring in any machines. Consultants can help administrators reevaluate how they distribute their resources to ensure that hospitals are operating at as high a level as possible.
  • Use (other) technology: The point of this article certainly is not to say that tech has no place in the hospital setting. Many digital tools can help eliminate redundancies, improve operations, and reduce costs.
  • Emphasize preventative care: Preventative care seems to be a hard concept to sell to the general public. A significant percentage of healthy humans will choose to avoid going to the doctor. However, when preventative care is neglected, hospitals wind up getting bogged down by a higher volume of serious cases, that might have been avoided with earlier intervention. Naturally, this is bad for the patient who is sicker than they need to be, and the hospital, which struggles with resource shortages. Many healthcare networks are trying to increase preventative care through community outreach and publicity campaigns.

Robotics and digital technology certainly have a future in healthcare. And while they may feel like the solution to many of the industry’s current problems, it is important to make sure that their adoption does not create further problems.

Nurses play a vital role in providing care, and that won’t change anytime soon.