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Can robots provide human care?

Machines and the future of caring for senior adults

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March 31, 2021

Mary has been a resident of West Valley Assisted Living Center for three years. She has a new caregiver named Harvey. Harvey visits Mary’s room every morning at 8:30 a.m. sharp. He says, “Hellllooo!” and slowly pushes open her door. Harvey brings Mary her morning medication, takes her blood pressure, and asks, “How are you feeling today, Mary?” Mary responds, “Just fine,” and Harvey gives her a big wink and replies with a very happy, “That’s what we like to hear.” 

Mary and Harvey always talk about her children who live in different states. Harvey always seems interested. Then Mary gets updates from Harvey on the weather forecast and a reminder of the day of the week. After a few minutes, Harvey pivots, offers a snappy, “Well, off to my next client!” and motors himself out of the room, carefully pushing the door closed behind him and exclaiming, “Toodle-oo Mary!” Harvey is West Valley’s newest technology, a service robot.

Robots and health care 

Although the story is fictional for the moment, robots are increasingly being called on to assist in health care. According to industry magazine, HealthTech, Adventist Health White Memorial in Los Angeles employs seven LightStrike robots from Xenex Disinfection Services to decontaminate rooms after patients leave. Each robot can emit multiple wavelengths of UV rays, sanitizing the room in as little as 10 to 15 minutes without human contact. 

A fleet of six Aethon TUG robots deliver linens and medicine across the 912-bed facility at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. Each robot can execute hundreds of tasks daily (collectively, they traveled 2,974 miles and completed 26,574 stops last year, according to the hospital). At Hutchinson Health, a Level IV Trauma Center in Hutchinson, Minnesota, a Savioke Relay robot delivers blood samples between the main hospital lab and its onsite clinics. Named Spencer (as in dispenser), the robot can work 24/7 and averages nearly 400 in-house deliveries per month. The machine is more efficient and cost-effective than a human employee and never needs paid family leave.

Soon other aspects of caregiving will be delegated to medical robots. In a September 2020 story in the British newspaper, The Guardian, Robert Booth reported that robots will be deployed in British care homes (nursing homes) to help boost the residents’ mental and emotional health.  

The wheeled robots, called “Pepper”, move independently and gesture with robotic arms and hands and are designed to be “culturally competent”, which means that after some initial programming they learn about the interests and backgrounds of care home residents. This allows them to initiate rudimentary conversations, play residents’ favourite music, teach them languages, and offer practical help including medicine reminders.

Robots, persons, and human care 

Even if programmed by human beings, and even if very efficient, are robots appropriate for truly human care? Not in my view. Robots do not care. They cannot provide care. They do not have the capacity to do so either emotionally or existentially. That is not to say that robots cannot perform important tasks. And it is also not to say that they might not be able to do some tasks more efficiently, more frequently, and more accurately than some humans; but they cannot provide care. Human care is a uniquely human gift, just as human touch is a uniquely human experience.

Care is a person-centered virtue. For Christians, the Good Samaritan is the classic example. In the account in Luke 10:25-27, Jesus makes it clear that providing care for those who are hurting and vulnerable is a holy obligation, not an option. In contemporary conversations, being a good Samaritan is often described as going above and beyond the call of duty, but Jesus’ words at the end of the story, “Go and do likewise,” show that it is an imperative. What models are there for Christian person-centered care for senior adults?

Among some Christians, care for the sick, aged, poor, unloved, and dying is a religious vocation or calling. The Alexian Brothers, for instance, is a lay Catholic order that dates back to the Black Death in 14th century Europe. Their moto is Caritas Christus Urgent Nos (For the love of Christ Compels Us). Their articles of faith begin with the affirmation: “We believe that life is a sacred gift from God. Each person is created in the divine image with a right of conscience and from conception until death is called to eternal union with God.” The Alexian Brothers established hospitals, continuing care retirement communities, and other ministries in health care.

The Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical denomination, operates Shell Pointe Retirement Community, that provides independent living, assisted living, memory care, rehabilitation, skilled nursing care, a pharmacy, and two medical centers. Rather than warehousing senior adults, Shell Pointe is “dedicated to the service of God and the care of His people by providing a broad continuum of residential alternatives and services, designed to enhance the independence and dignity of its residents through spiritual, social, recreational, and physical programs.”

Through their state conventions or other nonprofit entities, Southern Baptists operate a number of senior adult and continuing care retirement communities, including communities in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Missouri, and other states. In Missouri, “For over 100 years, The Baptist Home has provided care for the aging by providing quality care driven by a biblical perspective. Missouri Baptists are committed to supporting the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. The Baptist Home serves this commitment through Christlike, compassionate care to our aging population.”

If Southern Baptists and other Christians are going to resist the robot revolution in health care, respect human dignity, and support the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, they will have to rededicate themselves to patient-centered care, including senior adult care, palliative care, and hospice. We must not allow human senior communities to devolve into old people factories.

Photo Attribution:

CHRISTOF STACHE / Getty Contributor

C. Ben Mitchell

Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is a research fellow of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the Ethics Committee of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. In 2020, he served as a member of the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board. Read More