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Why Robots Could Never Replace the Company of a Nurse

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By Sheena Maireen Saavedra, BSN, R.N.

Everyday, nurses have the privilege to connect with their patients and show them love and care just by using open communication, an indispensable tool that people often take for granted. In the sense of being sensible, talking to another person is the best outlet of our emotions, a means of attaining understanding, and a way to channel compassion.

As nurses with a human heart, hearing their patients talk to them is a display of sharing mutual trust. Nurses embody the image of comfort and relief. Whenever nurses are in the presence of the patient, they will never feel that they are alone in their battle. The nurses are there for them, because they are trained how to care.

But what would happen if humans would start delegating the task of communication and caring to technology? I am talking about a video I have seen some time ago where an elderly patient in a nursing home was seen pouring her heart out to a ROBOT and not to a physical human nurse (I could no longer find the video, unfortunately, but the one below is a similar example).

YouTube video

But I repeat, she was crying in front of a robot. And the robot was able to act like it was responding to her in a very therapeutic way. Furthermore, this was actually celebrated as a huge human milestone of technological advancement.

Apparently, I was shocked at what I was seeing, but at the same time, I was also looking beyond the horror. Honestly, the robot is a cute, sweet, furry little thing, making it even more appealing and pleasing to the senses. It is so fluffy, I could die. The manufacturers really wanted to portray it as a lovable CREATURE rather than a mere mesh of rechargeable circuits and bolts. It is much like having a rechargeable pet that does not create any poop.

They named the robot Paro, a technological innovation that basically serves as a companion for the elderly patients with dementia. It is in a form of a baby harp seal, it responds perfectly to positive reactions from humans, and it is marketed as the suitable companion for the elderly, especially for those who are socially detached.

Paro the Therapeutic Robot seal. Via: TheStar.com
Paro the Therapeutic Robot seal. Via: TheStar.com

but having to see a human being having an intimate conversation with a lifeless form is just so wide of the mark

Sure, the main purpose serves it well and the end really justified the means as this becomes the solution to the scarcity of functional nurses, but having to see a human being having an intimate conversation with a lifeless form is just so wide of the mark. Something seems to be missing in the picture. Oh yeah. Another human being to give care, compassion, and connection is missing.

Nevertheless, that is really happening now and that is just the beginning. This advancement in robotic technology is no longer confined in the imagination of the movie makers and comic book creators.The great dream that robots and humanoids would make our life easier is finally coming to reality, and it is slowly making its way to the world of healthcare.

But the greater question with this scenario is this: Are we no longer available for the humans around us? Or are we just too plain busy to connect?

The confusion between connection and communication

From the moment that social media, technology, gadgets, and the internet became our means of communication, we seemed to fail the one thing that this technological advancement had aimed to achieve: connection.

Our society has somehow managed to disconnect from each other physically by glueing ourselves through a false sense of connection brought about by a virtual reality. And now, healthcare systems are slowly relying on robots to handle the task of communication as basically, human beings are simply running out of time to even TALK to each other.

This is the main reason why mechanisms like Paro were created, to fill in the gap of human connection that we could no longer satisfy.

Robots can only assist us with auxiliary tasks and not replace us as being human.

Robots are a miracle and a gift. Anyone would agree to that. It showcases our ability as a human being to create extraordinary things and make the future look brighter. But certain boundaries should be observed.

Robots can help the nurse lift patients, assist with the transfers, perform clean-up measures, and all those auxiliary tasks, but robots could never cry with the patient. Robots can imitate as if they can understand what human emotions are and how they feel, but it would still feel fake. The robot would still remain a circuit programmed to behave like us, and nothing more.

This is starting to begin as a small thing, a sporadic minor concern, but the next thing we know, it is too late. Before we know it, we would find ourselves in a situation where we are surrounded with people, but we would still feel desperately alone.

A robot could never fight for the advocacy of caring

To be part of the nursing team would mean that we should uphold our power to be advocates of our patients. Anything that they are going to communicate to us is our responsibility to safeguard with absolute devotion. But somehow, we tend to focus more on the minor tasks that are not the real essence of being a nurse. We tend to put more dedication to administrative tasks and non-nursing related work over having a little chat with our patient that could have been what they really needed at that time to make them feel better.

Don’t you think crying with them would give you a better sense of fulfillment as a nurse than pouring over the administrative tasks that comes along with the profession?

A robot is an object, a human being is not.

Having emotions and all these neurochemical reactions inside us are what made us human beings…

We are alive for certain reasons. Having emotions and all these neurochemical reactions inside us are what made us human beings. To encourage social interaction and connection to each other should be our main battlecry. Losing our touch by connecting instead to a robot would mean we are making ourselves at par with the inanimate objects that we have created.

I know that I am being idealistic at this point. Maybe we have to give reconsideration to the real problem of nursing shortage, and using robots could be a temporary fix. Sure, nurses are overburdened with medication orders, stat procedures, and other distractions that we nurses encounter in a daily basis, that taking the time to sit down with an elderly person to hear and share her woes would be a huge chunk of time taken from our productivity. But are we really making the world a better place by giving technology the power to play proxy over these kinds of tasks?

I don’t think so. I really don’t.

Robots are Not the cure for Chronic Loneliness

It seems that we are adding more emotional weight to the inanimate things like our cell phones and robots instead of going to another person who can actually care at what we are thinking or how we are feeling. Is this the consequence of our undiagnosed chronic loneliness as human beings living in this era? Are we really helping each other fight off loneliness, or are we actually creating more ways to alienate ourselves from one another? Are we so used at having no one to talk to, that it would be familiar to talk to a robot instead of a person?

It is good to note that the creators have made these kind of therapeutic robots to help achieve solutions for the mentally ill patients, especially those that are no longer in communication with reality. The creators also thought that instead of using therapeutic dogs and cats that are alive, robots would serve as a better option as it does not need to be fed and it does produce waste. But the context lies to the fact that the elderly patients would actually prefer to talk to a lifeless, uncaring thing that has a false sense of understanding, rather than talk with their children or to a nurse that could have understood what the patient is really feeling at the moment.

We should not be happy that the responsibility to care for another human being is off our shoulders, even if it is only temporary. Nurses should not content themselves with the thought that giving a Paro robot to their patient is actually their own means of helping them when they are not with them physically. In the long run, it could lead to running away from responsibility.

The main deal is that, the healthcare system is actually not just falling short in available nurses working the field, but the system is also falling short of people who really wanted to care.

Everyone is struggling with an internal battle, something that robots could never understand.

Robots are programmed to behave and respond according to the standards of being therapeutic, but somehow, they still lacked certain aspects of being human. These would include being intuitive and having the ability to identify an ongoing internal battle by observing non-verbal cues of the patient.

Some people just don’t know how to say they are not okay. Some are terrible at talking their heart out because of the social stigma that says showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness. It takes a compassionate nurse to know these indications, a trait that robots are still not equipped with.

If we have to be honest with ourselves, talking to our patients in a deeper level is just a small percentage of what we actually do in a typical shift. We talk to them about their conditions, we talk about the weather and all those small talk, about the questions that they might have and other concerns, but we seldom do the real talk at all – about their kids, about their life, about the consequences of their situations, or about their regrets and feelings. Apparently, the robot is numb of that spirit. It is better if the nurse directly interacts with the patient instead.

Robots should not take away our privilege to care for another human being

It is a privilege to care. It is a privilege to be cared. The moment someone else cared for another person is enough reason to motivate someone to live. These are the moments where we gained a better understanding of our own purpose as a human with a life. These are supposed to be the defining moments of our profession as nurses who are masters of caring for another. Let us keep making worthy connections to prevent losing contact with the human who came to seek for our aid. The future of the healthcare system would depend on how engaged nurses are to the patients that they are handling.

YouTube video

So let the robot fix the messed up room, let the robot help you with the bed bath, let the robot change the linens of the bed, let the robot write the documentation for you in the patient chart (I hope it would happen. A girl can dream, you know). But the most important thing is, give your time to the patient. Got an extra 15 minutes? Good. Go on and hold that hand. Talk to your fellow human beings. They needed it more than you know.

Sheena Maireen Saavedra is a registered nurse since 2007. She is working as a general nurse in Ireland since 2016 but was a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit and Coronary Care Unit when she was in the Philippines. As a person who continually challenges herself to expand her skill set, she ventured into different fields of the medical world, which includes working as a Product Performance Analyst and Quality Analyst in Boston Scientifics Inc, a medical company that manufactures Class III implantable devices such as pacemakers, ICDs, and CRTs. In general, she enjoyed being a nurse as it helped her meet all kinds of people – which impacted her life the most as she listened to their stories of triumph and tribulations. The profession has created avenues for her to make a difference to somebody’s life. This inspired her to write materials, guides and stories that served as sources of inspiration and help to the world around her, in particular to her fellow sisters and brothers of the industry.

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