Is the Nursing Profession on the Verge of a Robotic Revolution?

Nursing RoboticsWith the U.S on the verge of a nursing shortage, many experts are starting to wonder where the next generation of nurses and caregivers will come from. The Baby Boomer generation, which accounts for 20% of the US population, is reaching the age of 65 and it’s estimated that they will consume up to 4 times the amount of healthcare as any other age demographic.1 This increase in demand makes right now a great time to consider a career in nursing. But could nurses have some competition in the form of a well-designed machine?

Although it sounds more like science fiction, a recent LinkedIn article by author Alec Ross suggests that robots could emerge as a viable alternative to human nurses and caregivers. Although his argument focuses on the country of Japan, which is currently at the forefront of robotic technology, the article offers a wealth of interesting facts about how different cultures perceive the role that nurses play in society. Here are 4 things that nursing students and recent graduates should know about the coming robotic age.

Robots Can Perform Certain Tasks Very Well. . .

Ten years ago, the idea of a freestanding robot that can walk, sit and lift heavy objects might have seemed farfetched, but since then several Japanese companies like Honda and Toyota have invested millions of dollars in research and development funds to design and build robots that can perform many of the same tasks that humans perform.2 These robots are expected to have an effect on a wide range of industries, from construction to food preparation to - even nursing. The research institute RIKEN has unveiled a robot that can pick up, move and set down patients. Considering that many nursing related injuries are caused by moving patients, this skill could prove useful.3 As Ross writes, the current generation of robots can already complete a number of caregiving responsibilities, including “helping the elderly move between rooms; keeping tabs on those likely to wander; and providing entertainment through games, singing, and dancing.” CTU’s Dean of Nursing, Ruth Tarantine, sees these abilities as a great tool for the future of eldercare. “Robots will definitely be beneficial in assisting with the activities of daily living of elders,” she says.

. . .But Care is Different from Connection

Robotic technology has indeed come a long way in a short period of time, but there are still major challenges to overcome that should keep nurses and caregivers in business for several generations. The article explains that robots have a lot of trouble with precise tasks that require very sophisticated spacial awareness. Things that humans do without even thinking, like brushing our teeth or taking a jug of milk from the fridge, are still beyond the capabilities of a robot.

More importantly, robots lack the ability to form a truly emotional connection with a human--which is vital to the relationship that nurses have with their patients. As Ruth Tarantine explains, “True care is based on a relationship where the caregiver is concerned with the well-being of the recipient. A robot might provide an illusion of concern for the recipient’s well-being, but it will never be able to attach human emotion to the interaction.”

Every Nursing Shortage is Unique

Japan’s interest in implementing robotic technology into the nursing field is at least partially due to a nursing shortage. By 2020, nearly 30 percent of the Japanese population will be over the age of 65, and its healthcare industry will need to add 2.5 million elder care nurses to meet the demand. The article explains that Japan’s situation is far more extreme than in the U.S., where a larger immigrant population helps to mitigate some of the effects of an aging population. If the U.S. can continue to add trained, dedicated individuals to the nursing community at a steady rate, we should be able to meet our projected health care demands. Japan, on the other hand, will need to more than double its current number or trained nurses by 2020. In this light, robots aren’t really replacing nurses. They are simply mitigating the effects of a shortage.

Acceptance of Robotic Nurses is Cultural

One of the reasons that Japan has been so quick to embrace robotic technology is its culture, which is strongly rooted in the Shinto religion. One of the core beliefs of Shintoism is the notion that people, animals and even inanimate objects all contain spirits. In turn, the Japanese are much more willing to accept them as a kind of companion. Ross explains that Americans are much more likely to see robots as machines, and we have difficulty imagining “that lifelike robots may walk the streets with us, work in the cubicle next to ours, or take our elderly parents for a walk and then help them with dinner.”

As robots become more prevalent throughout society, it is likely that people will grow more comfortable with them performing some basic human tasks. Ross’s article ends by suggesting that the most likely outcome is a world in which humans and robots work together to improve industries like nursing. Tarantine agrees, noting that the modern hospital is already inundated with technology. And yet, there’s no way to replace the experience of speaking with a real-life nurse who can empathize and offer comfort. “Various technology has already been incorporated into the hospital setting,” Tarantine says, “but at the end of the day, patients still want human interaction. We all do.”

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1 American Association of Colleges of Nursing, "Nursing Shortage Fact Sheet," on the internet at (visited 3/24/16)
2Ross, A. (2016, February 27). Could our future nurses and caregivers be robots? Retrieved March 16, 2016, from (visited 3/24/16)
3Worker Safety in Your Hospital. (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2016, from (visited 3/24/16)