CMDA's The Point

Is There a Robot in the House?

October 17, 2019
Photo: Pixabay

by D. Joy Riley MD, MA (Ethics)

Imagine instructing your patients to tell their problems to a little yellow, happy-faced, big-blue-eyed robot instead of you. On the face of it, it seems an obvious way to reduce costs—no salary for the robot, no health insurance and no 401(k).  And the robot does not take up space in the hospital or office. It is a home-body.


“Mabu” is the robot’s name, and it is programmed with software that “incorporates expertise in psychology, artificial intelligence, and medical treatment plans to help patients manage their chronic conditions.” The robot asks the patient questions, and then it proceeds to give the patient “tips, medication reminders, and information on their condition.” (Watch the video.) Additionally, Mabu sends information to persons providing care to the patient, such as physicians, nurses and pharmacists.  Cory Kidd, PhD, who heads up care management startup Catalia Health, plans to extend Mabu’s reach to include other disease conditions, while also increasing the frequency of patient-caregiver interactions. 


Mabu is not the only robot deployed for work in the healthcare arena. “Paro” is a baby harp seal that originated in Japan. In 2011, multiple Paros were “dispatched” to bring comfort to survivors of the Northern Japan earthquake and tsunamis. In the United States, Paro has been certified as a “biofeedback medical device” by the FDA.  The health effects of loneliness and social isolation include increased risk of “depression, cognitive decline, and dementia,” as well as premature mortality. 


Increasingly, there is described an “epidemic of loneliness” in the U.S. Are robots the answer? Even if Mabus and Paros populate the space of patients—either in their homes or in their care facilities—the responsibility of human caregivers to engage in human-to-human interaction is not lessened. The time may be spent differently if robots are employed to remove some of the physical or information-gathering burden of care. But the call to relationship, connectedness and human flourishing require our attention to one another. Where to start? Eye contact with the people nearest us is one place to begin. In an age of electronic medical records, that can be a challenge. Yet patient compliance and improved patient outcomes result from effective communication on the part of the clinician. Most communication is nonverbal, comprising facial expression, gestures and posture, in addition to eye contact. Berman and Chutka have provided a rubric to assess physician-patient communication skills. It is a reasonable starting point.


We can practice at home by learning the names of all the people who live in the two to four houses closest to ours. Hmmm, perhaps I should sign off now and go introduce myself to my neighbor of more years than I care to number….

D. Joy Riley MD, MA (Ethics)

About D. Joy Riley MD, MA (Ethics)

Executive Director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture.

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