Medical Devices and Healthcare IT

Healthcare Robots for the Elderly Making Progress

22 August 2014

The healthcare industry is considering robots to augment today’s methods of caring for one another. In particular, the industry is turning toward a variety of potential robotics providers that can assist in the care of the elderly.

Some of these robots are already available to patients. Some are just in trial phases. But they are all designed to help fill the gap between the increasing amount of elderly people, and the decreasing population of home care aides.

These robot caregivers come in many forms, but their basic goal is the same – to use human input to provide accurate healthcare. Some act as data repositories, filled with vital signs and other measurements taken while in close proximity to the patient. They can provide reminders to take medicine, monitor diet and exercise regimens, and can act as physical rehabilitation aides. They can also keep track of blood pressure and blood sugar levels, as well as take other measurements to ensure bodily functions are working properly.

GiraffPlus, a robot currently in the trial phase in European homes, can outperform human caregivers’ ability to maintain and utilize patient data. For instance, the robot uses sensors to monitor motion, pressure, humidity, and other points of contact to give doctors and family members clues as to the whereabouts and well being of a patient. Still other examples, such as Paro, lean more toward an emotional connection. Paro comes in the shape of a baby seal, and is cuddly and soft. It wriggles and makes noises, and reacts to patient input. Paro has been available in Japan for a decade, and has been in U.S. hospitals and care facilities since 2008. Though Paro has sold about 4,000 units worldwide, and 500 in the United States, they remain expensive. The robot costs $6,000 to buy, $200 per month to rent and is not covered by insurance.

The GiraffPlus robot uses sensors to monitor motion, pressure, humidity, and other points of contact to give clues about the well being of a patient.

Source: Terese Andersson/GiraffPlus

Since many of these robots are still just prototypes, or undergoing in-home trials, there is little financial data available. The International Federation of Robotics, however, estimates that in 2012 (the most recent year for which figures are available) around 3 million service robots for personal use were sold. That number represents a 20 percent jump from 2011 figures, as well as a $1.2 billion increase in the value of sales.

IHS predicts worldwide revenue for home healthcare devices and services to rise to $12.6 billion in 2018, up from $5.7 billion in 2013. The Telehealth (Skype-like services on moving robots, but for doctors and family members of aging citizens) industry alone will account for $4.5 billion in revenue in 2018, up from $440 million in 2013. The EU reports an expected market of €13 billion for elderly care robots by 2016.

Those numbers may seem a tad optimistic, but Paro and GiraffPlus are just two of many healthcare robots researchers and developers are working on. The CompanionAble Project, based in the U.K., raised €7.8 million in 2008 to develop and test Hector. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have been working on HERB, a butler robot, since 2006. HERB is supposed to be able to perform routine household tasks in order to help elderly or immobile patients. A Georgia Tech team is developing its own version: Cody. The list goes on.

Despite favorable predictions, and countless projects already underway, there are a number of obstacles to widespread adoption of healthcare robots for the elderly.

For one, many are still wary of robotic technology, and seem to imagine a darker, science-fiction-type future should domestic robots come into prominence. According to a recent Pew survey, 65 percent of respondents said they believe change would be for the worst if lifelike robots were primary caregivers for the sick and elderly population. In a similar U.K. survey, 45 percent of respondents said they thought technology is evolving too quickly.

However, IHS analyst Shane Walker suggests that these robots can be used as complementary services to human healthcare. “In a clinical setting,” Walker said “robots can definitely provide an added level of care, supplementing the existing staff but not serving as a replacement.” It allows the physician to monitor patients, even if an in-person visit isn't possible. “A physician,” Walker added “can make use of the camera and display to make rounds, communicating with patients through audio and video, in addition to gathering vital signs from connected monitors.”

Another reason for worry is that healthcare is a difficult field for which to develop robots. An effective and safe healthcare robot requires developers with expertise in more fields than just robotics. And it isn't quite as easy to monetize a healthcare robotics system as it is to, say, develop something like Kinect for Xbox consoles. IHS analyst Andrew Robertson believes part of the reason for this is that healthcare robots won’t be able to generate their own market. According to Robertson, “from an industrial point of view, robots do not play a big part in terms of demand for chips and electronic parts.” So, unlike other, similar CE devices that already have traction, healthcare robots won’t make a big enough dent in demand for parts to develop a fast track to mass production and sales. “Although the unit cost of a robot might be high,” Robertson added, “in terms of unit shipments they are very low compared to things like industrial PCs.” Low demand and little crossover with existing products also help make healthcare robotics a particularly expensive experiment.

Third, turning these prototypes into mass-produced products is expensive. Kiva, for instance, the mobile warehouse robot purchased by Amazon, required $33 million in venture capital-backed funding before its acquisition (that is a far cry from the nearly $10 million researchers have raised for Hector). There is cheaper competition in the homecare space such as mobile apps and less complicated forms of home monitoring systems. As a result, investor confidence in the sector is difficult to come by.

Additionally, Walker thinks finished products will have to include price points that are affordable. He says low-cost monthly contracts with the expectation of long-term use will likely be needed. For example, Paro’s pricing tiers use a rental and up-front purchase model to a degree of success. Other solutions may have to provide similar pricing options to emulate Paro’s sales.

Despite the challenges, raw financial predictions support an expanding healthcare robotics market in the coming years, and organizations seem set on this as a potential solution for the elder care void.

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