Robots To Give A Helping Hand In UK Health And Welfare

When picturing how robots would fit into our society growing up, you may have imagined them carrying out exciting futuristic tasks or posing a threat to the existence of humanity with their dangerous intellectual capabilities.

In today’s day and age, however, we no longer need to dream of the possibilities robots might bring. We’re already seeing what they can do.

You may have heard of chatbots and their ability to engage with and respond to messages, answer common questions and process large quantities of information. You may also have heard of other kinds of robotics that are commonly used in manufacturing, assembly and packing, and transport.

But both in hospitals and online, chatbots and robots are already being used to help with the UK’s health and welfare system.

How Robots Are Already Helping In Hospitals

In West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, Cumbria, £350,000 has been invested in a robot that will help the pharmacy staff’s efficiency.

Hospital bosses have stated that this robot will be able to manage and distribute large amounts of medicine with the help of its robotically-controlled arms. This pharmacy service will provide medication to other hospitals and community clinics.

After being delivered to the hospital in February, this robot has already shown that it’s up to scratch for the job by distributing its first lot of medicine this week.

If effective, the North Cumbria Integrated Care (NICI) NHS Foundation Trust has said it hopes that the “dispensing robot” will take pressure off the hospital’s pharmacy service and, as such, will allow staff to spend more of their time on the wards.

But West Cumberland Hospital is not the only facility taking advantage of the benefits robotics offer healthcare.

Robots are already being used in other UK hospitals to help free up pressure facing NHS staff in the face of continuing criticism of long waiting lists for treatment and lack of staff.

In a BBC report released in January 2022, a hospital in Bristol can be seen drafting robots to help improve efficiency in behind-the-scenes roles. This includes moving food and goods around the hospital, packing drugs, and assisting surgeons in operating theatres.

In addition to this, a robotic surgery system in Lincoln is also being used to help with cancer treatments in surgery.

Is It Time To Open Up To Chatbot Therapists?

Whether or not you would want to open up to a chatbot therapist, this could become a reality for anybody who wishes to seek emotional support from an online chatbot as opposed to a real-life therapist.

The introduction of Alexa and Siri into our daily lives means that it is already common for us to turn to chatbots on websites or our smartphones to answer our queries and give us advice.

Whilst talking to Alexa or Siri may seem like a pretty ordinary and unimpressive phenomenon in today’s day and age, these systems are powered by artificial intelligence (AI) software and are becoming increasingly sophisticated right under our noses.

Computer programmer Eugenia Kuyda believes that such chatbots can become human-like enough to grow to be a much more sophisticated emotional companions. Kuyda launched Replika, a U.S. chatbot app, in 2017 and describes it as something that can offer an “AI companion who cares, always here to listen and talk, always on your side”.

Replika now has more than two million users. Each user has a “replika” that can learn from conversations using AI and can become unique to its user as a result.

Although Kuyda has said that Replika should be viewed as a companion rather than a therapist, the app can still greatly impact our health industry.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than one in ten people have a mental disorder and “just a small fraction of people in need have access to effective, affordable and quality mental health care”.

So, chatbot mental health therapists may offer a great way for people to get the health care they need at a cheaper, easier, and more accessible rate.

Bots Taking Jobs 

However great these bots may be in their roles, their presence may mean that real-life people will miss out on job opportunities in the health and welfare sector.

Whilst this should not cause too much concern as bots are only just being introduced in this sector and only at a minor level, this does raise the more general question of what will happen when bots start taking over jobs on a wider scale.

Of course, in the therapy field, it is likely that bots will never overwhelm the industry and cause all therapists to lose their jobs.

Bots as therapists also have their downfalls: a person may develop unhealthy relationships with their chatbot, they may find it lacking empathy and other human qualities, and other technical issues may occur such as data leaks and other security problems.

Arguably, real-life therapy also provides support and insight into the human psyche that just cannot be achieved through online text.

However, it cannot be denied that some people may simply prefer the more accessible service that a chatbot therapist may offer.

Although not a therapist, Kuyda has said that Replika can already be useful to people everywhere. For example, Kuyda says that people using the app range from autistic children who turn to it as a way to “warm up before human interactions”, to adults who are simply lonely and need a friend to those wanting to reduce their social anxiety.

So, anyone just wanting an accessible companion instead of wanting to go to a real-life therapist may well benefit from what the Replika app can offer.

And in terms of how useful robots can be in the health system and hospitals, the “dispensing robot” has already had positive reviews.

Clinical Director of Pharmacy Paul Fieldhouse has said: “It is good to see this innovation and most up-to-date technology being introduced at West Cumberland Hospital”,

“The robot will speed up the process of issuing stock medicines to patients, wards and our community hospitals” he continued.

Robots will be able to reduce many of the pressures and concerns facing hospitals and health staff today. They will provide aid in fetching and distributing medicine, keeping hospitals clean and operational, and assisting in surgeries.

Relieving desperately wanting NHS staff of time pressures will surely mean that our entire national health system may thrive and benefit from these newly introduced hospital bots.