Japan's Answer to the Nursing Shortage

Japan has created its own answer to the global nursing shortage: the robot. Japanese engineers have spent the last three years developing an improvement to the 2006 design of the Riken Ri-Man. The Ri-Man, a robot capable of lifting 40 pounds, was created to help nurses lift patients in and out of wheelchairs and beds. The new model, the Riba, can carry more and moves faster than its predecessor.

The RIBA, which is short for Robot for Interactive Body Assistance, was thought up by the Riken research institute, and can carry more than three times as much as the Ri-Man. Engineers are hoping that the RIBA will be making its way into Japanese health care centers by 2012. This reflects a general trend in the Japanese workforce: researchers everywhere are looking for robotic ways to replace human workers in an effort to cut costs and increase efficiency.

The RIBA is designed to look like a teddy bear in order to prevent patients from fearing the health care robot, as anthropomorphic robots have been known to cause anxiety with humans. Engineers covered the robot with soft skin and foam padded arms that provide comfort to the patient, and this four and a half foot tall robot can lift up to over 130 pounds. Strangely, the RIBA is outfitted with sensors to recognize faces and voices, and is capable of answering to as many as thirty commands.

Although the RIBA does not replace the function of the nurse in Japanese hospitals, the robot will greatly assist in the lessening on the burden on nurses. Dr. Toshiharu Mukai, the Riken research team leader, stated that "We have developed RIBA because we want to help caregivers when they are required to transfer patients between hospital beds and wheelchairs." As the physical stress of moving patients can place a huge toll on the job satisfaction of nurses, the RIBA protects nursing staff from the back and leg problems that affect nurses.

Could this same technique be used to alleviate stress on an over worked nursing population in America? Like Japan, the United State's health care infrastructure is being compromised by an increase in the elderly population, while younger people are entering fields other than nursing.

Robots have actually been proposed as part of the solution to the problem of health care, along with increased funding for education and wider acceptance of online nursing programs. Colin Angle, the CEO of iRobot, a company that designs robots as dissimilar as bomb-defusers and vacuum cleaners, has suggested that robotic telepresence devices could cut the number of health care workers needed in hospitals by providing the sick and the elderly with care at home.

These telepresence devices would act as a primary care proxy. The robot would be capable of examinations, diagnoses and prescription scheduling. Consequently, the patient would only need to enter a hospital, putting a burden on the workers, for care available no where else. Though the telepresence device may take years to develop and test, it is a promising proposal for overburdened health care workers looking for a little bit of outside help.

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