How to build better nurses, through smarter tech

Paul Mayne // Western NewsNursing professor Richard Booth believes introducing greater technology into health care – even robot nurses – is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when.’ He is looking to bring this new technology and nursing students together with the creation of an intelligent, assistive technology home-of-the-future for older adults, to be built in a simulation lab in the School of Nursing.

Don’t be surprised if health-care robots one day roam the hallways of your local hospital or nursing home. But fear not, said one Western researcher, we’re not under attack.

“We like to think of robots as the Terminator or non-existent. Robots who are going to be humanoid and take over aren’t going to exist any time soon,” joked Nursing professor Richard Booth.

Robots may take on routine tasks but the human connection of nursing will never be obsolete, he said.

“Nurses don’t need to feel threatened because they are so highly skilled, they are not going to go anywhere. We’re in one of the least automate-able professions you’re going to get, but there are some elements of the role that can be (automated).”

Western offers a second-year health informatics course to help nursing students use information technology to improve health care through any combination of improved quality and efficiency or new opportunities.

“The movement of information, which is usually done well by technology, is how and why we need to see this topic more and more,” he said. “It’s the way we have to go and, at Western, we are pretty lucky because we have one of the few requisite undergrad informatics classes.”

The course has been offered since 2012, yet health care generally continues to lag far behind in embracing the potential benefits of incorporating new technology that has been adopted in other professions.

“It has amplified and gone so quickly that health care is still catching up to where we should have been 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s not anyone’s fault, but we have a lot of culture and context within health care that has created barriers in moving this topic forward.”

Booth is looking to bring this new technology and nursing students together with the creation of an intelligent assistive technology home-of-the-future for older adults, to be built in a simulation lab in the School of Nursing.

“We are going to kit it out with as much artificial intelligence and robotics as we can and create situations of the future, from a homecare perspective, for our nursing students to experience,” he said. “I can make it so Orwellian, just with stuff from Best Buy.”

The ability to turn lights on and off, turn on the vacuum, watch and interact with family, use a robot to drive around to talk to people, determine how many times a toilet has been flushed, dispense medication automatically – it’s a new care model of the future, he said.

Having to go to the medical supply unit on the other side of a hospital 17 times in an hour and a half doesn’t make sense, said Booth, but if you can ask a robot to do that, you’ve just given a human the time and opportunity to do more human-related things.

“We’re at the point where technology has started to impact labour, and tasks are now up for grabs,” said Booth. “You match that to health care and it becomes quite important because a lot of the roles we do as nurses are very labour- and task-oriented. But there are some labour and tasks that are probably not important to nursing moving into the future, either because they’re too low-skilled and too repetitive or are not of value for the nurses to do. This is where your artificial-intelligence robots come in,” he said.

“Health care is so inherently complex but now, with artificial intelligence, it becomes our job as a profession, as nurses, as to what tasks humans need to give to the robots, because if we don’t do it purposely from a health care perspective, some company will do it for us.”

But the question that looms largest is, does the introduction of this technology remove the human touch from patient care?

“It depends on what side of the coin you want to look at,” said Booth. “There are always going to be barriers. Any time you create a new process, you have unintended consequences, so the digitization of health care information will create unintended consequences, but it also gives a lot of benefits.”

Booth noted virtually all information in our daily lives is digitized: bank records, our watches, our phones, what we bought at the grocery store today. But health care, until recently, has been a much more paper-based process.

“We have started moving towards automation and digitization, but to take a paper record in a culture that has been generated around paper and transition to electronic, is like moving mountains. It’s similar to what the banks did years ago, moving from deposit slips to electronic deposits.”

The banking industry’s conversion to digital was complicated enough; in the health field, translating the quantitative and qualitative complexities of someone’s care makes digitization exponentially more difficult, added Booth.

Electronic records, referrals, medication administration, prescriptions can all provide improved safety and accuracy.

“It may remove the nurse from doing something that, historically, has been, in a very nursing-centric world, a lot of hands-on. It might change that,” said Booth.

As a collective profession, Booth said adopting and using these technologies is already occurring, with hospital facilities here in London using full electronic records in some places.

“Society is basically driving this forward more than we are,” he said. “All the home automation we have available to us now, which three years ago was theoretical, is now consumer level. Just as social media was driven by consumers and not by communications people, we’re at the point where the automation of basic tasks is being amplified by changes in technology.”