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Robotics is a promising area of technological development in the field of healthcare. Due to its novelty, the recent introduction of robotic nurses has raised several ethical concerns. The following paper explores the implications of the technology for patient safety and discusses potential ways of resolving the issues.
The question of patient safety can be approached by looking at harm that could potentially be inflicted on humans by robotic nurses and estimating the likelihood of such occurrence. Since robotics is a novel addition to the field of healthcare, the data illustrating the risks are scarce. Therefore, it would be reasonable to look at potential areas of risk that are relevant to the field of robotics in general and apply them to robotic nurses. The first area of consideration is the technical capability of robots to perform the functions necessary for the delivery of care with a level of quality sufficient for ensuring adequate safety. The quality and, more importantly, continuity and consistency of service provided by a machine depends on its ability to function in accordance with the expectations and set standards with a reasonable amount of predictability. These variables are determined largely at the production stage and can be modified through consistent monitoring. Potential risks associated with this aspect are a mechanical malfunction of the robot’s systems and malfunction of its sensors.
Power shortage can also be considered an issue since the current hardware requires a significant amount of energy to function properly (Plooij, Wisse, & Vallery, 2016). The majority of these issues are preventable and can be avoided with the help of regular maintenance and incorporation of automated reporting systems. It is also important to emphasize that the current level of technology allows developing and manufacturing robots with the level of quality sufficient for healthcare settings (Rabbitt, Kazdin, & Scassellati, 2015; Royakkers & van Est, 2015). It is also necessary to acknowledge that robotics has been successfully implemented in other areas of healthcare (e.g. surgery) where their efficiency has been conclusively proven (Deborah, Samuel, & Sunaina, 2016; Jacofsky & Allen, 2016; Kim, Kim, & Baik, 2014; Robinson, MacDonald, & Broadbent, 2014; Sohn, Lee, & Ahlering, 2013). Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that from a technical standpoint, ethical concerns with patient safety are minimal.
The second area of consideration is the decision-making capacity of a robot nurse. In order to deliver care without putting patients at risk, robots need to be able to respond to patient conditions and other external factors. In other words, harm may be inflicted on patients as a result of an inappropriate decision made by the artificial intelligence of the robot. The easiest way to minimize the risk of harm would be to limit the responsibilities of robotic nurses to the most basic functions that do not require complex data analysis. However, this will also limit the potential areas of application, decreasing the overall effectiveness of robotics.
Thus, the emphasis should instead be made on the processing capacity of the AI. Admittedly, the development of AI systems is currently in the early stage and still contains multiple unresolved issues (Frankish & Ramsey, 2014). According to the consensus, robots in healthcare need to assist humans physically and psychologically and contribute to a safe and peaceful society (Erikson & Salzmann-Erikson, 2016). However, these principles utilize several concepts that have no single agreed-upon definition and are thus hard to convert into a format comprehended by an AI. Therefore, unless further advancements are made in the field, it would be necessary to rely on rigidly defined procedures and limited flexibility in the areas that do not contain risks for the patient’s life.
Robotic nurses hold tremendous potential in terms of improvement of care. However, due to its novelty, the area requires refinement before it can be safely implemented in practice. Further research and development in the field of AI are expected to minimize ethical considerations associated with the technology.
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