Basic assumptions, whether explicitly defined or not, often determine the eventual success, or failure, of all research and design projects. It's all too easy for an engineer to make assumptions that don't bear out in the real world. It's also very common for corporate management to dedicate huge budgets to projects built on faulty logic.
After watching, and thinking about, some of the patient assistance robotic technology showcased yesterday by Toyota, I really have to wonder what their original design assumptions were. A good example is the Toyota Patient Transfer Assist Robot.
Of course, the basic concept is valid. There is definitely a need for technology to assist the infirm, handicapped, and elderly. It's even more true in Japan with it's cultural resistance to importing foreign caregivers. One could attribute that resistance to discrimination factors, but that would be somewhat unfair. The primary objective is to deliver effective care to patients. And, in today's environment, the vast majority of patients requiring extended care are elderly. They are the least likely to feel comfortable and confident with non-Japanese caregivers.
The vast majority of patients couldn't deal with cross-language and cross-cultural communication issues, even when they are in the best of health. When they are sick or disabled, confidence in their caregiver and smooth communication become critical. Patients live in a world of fear. Fear about their illness, about what's going to happen to them, about anything and everything. One of the most important factors for good care is to deal with their fears. To calm and reassure them. To improve their confidence and trust in their caregivers, whether they are domestic, foreign, or even robotic.
There in lies the problem, and the challenge for companies that seriously want to develop robotic solutions for hospital and care facilities. The robots, whatever form they take, have to operate in the demanding real world environment. They have to improve existing processes. And, that means making life easier and simpler for both the facility staff and the patients. Above all, the robot solutions have to adjust to the emotional and physical needs of the patients and staff. It isn't going to be enough to just re-engineer and pad forklifts so that they can operate in care facilities. A padded forklift isn't a 'robot'.
Video courtesy of K. Moriyama
I will grant that Japanese patients tend to be more manageable and less demanding than Westerners. In general, they do what they are told, and they seem to be blessed with infinite patience. That being said, I can't imagine that a patient that is ill enough to be in a care facility will be able to wait patiently, holding their bowels, while a nurse fetches the robot, positions it, coaxes them into position, trolleys over to the bathroom, drops the patient's pants, removes their diaper, and settles him over the toilet. I have to wonder if it wouldn't be easier, more effective, and cheaper to design a bed with a built-in toilet.
That's not to say that I am negative or skeptical about the potential for robots in healthcare. Quite the opposite. There is tremendous potential, and a crying need. But when it happens it will be because the robotic solution addresses more than just the superficial mechanical requirements presented in today's medical environment. Design approaches like the concept products showcased by Toyota this week are certainly necessary, but not sufficient. They're a good start, but have a long, long way to go before they can start to deliver on the public's expectations.