In shortage of health personnel, Germany uses robots for care of the elderly

The white humanoid “Garmi” does not look much different from a typical robot – he stands on a platform with wheels and is equipped with a black screen on which two blue circles are attached acting as eyes.

But retired German doctor Guenter Steinebach, 78, said: “For me, this robot is a dream.”

Not only is Garmi able to perform diagnostics on patients, but it can also provide them with care and treatment. Or at least, that’s the plan.

Garmi is a product of a new sector called geriatronics, a discipline that exploits advanced technologies such as robotics, computing and 3D technology for geriatrics, gerontology and nursing.

A dozen scientists built Garmi with the help of doctors like Steinebach at the Institute for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in Munich.

Part of the Technical University of Munich, the institute has based its specialized geriatronics unit in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a ski resort that is home to one of the highest proportions of elderly people in Germany.

Europe’s most populous country is itself one of the fastest aging societies in the world.

As the number of people in need of care increases rapidly and around 670,000 caregiving positions will remain vacant in Germany by 2050, researchers are racing to design robots that can take over some of the tasks performed today by nurses, caregivers and doctors.

“We have ATMs where we can withdraw money today. We can imagine that one day, on the same model, people can come and take their medical examination in a kind of technological hub,” Abdeldjallil said. Naceri, 43, the lab’s lead scientist.

Doctors could then remotely assess the results of the robot’s diagnostics, which could be especially valuable for people living in remote communities.

Alternatively, the machine could offer more personalized service at home or in a nursing home – serving meals, opening a bottle of water, calling for help in the event of a fall or arranging a video call with the family and friends.

– ‘We have to get there’ –

In the Garmisch lab, Steinebach sat down at a table equipped with three screens and a joystick to prepare to test the robot’s progress.

At the other end of the room, a researcher designated as a test model takes his place in front of Garmi, who places a stethoscope on his chest – an action directed from afar by Steinebach via the joystick.

Medical data appears immediately on the doctor’s screen.

“Imagine if I had that in my old practice,” Steinebach said, while moving the joystick.

Besides the retired doctor, other doctors regularly visit the lab to offer their ideas and feedback on the robot.

“He’s like a three-year-old. We have to teach him everything,” Naceri said.

No one can guess when Garmi might be ready for commercial scale.

But Naceri is convinced that “we have to get there, the statistics clearly show that it is urgent”.

“From 2030, we must be able to integrate this kind of technology into our society.”

– Question of trust –

And if he is actually deployed one day, residents of the Sankt Vinzenz retirement home in project partner Garmisch will likely see Garmi whizzing through the hallways.

Just thinking about it, Ms. Rohrer, a 74-year-old resident of the home, smiled.

“There are things a robot can do, for example, serve a drink or bring meals,” she said as Eva Pioskowik, the house manager, did her nails.

Pioskowik, who struggles with staff shortages daily, said she didn’t expect the robot to replace health workers.

“But it might allow our staff to spend a bit more time with the residents,” she said.

For the Naceri team, one of the major challenges is not technological, medical or financial.

Rather, it remains to be seen whether most patients will accept the robot.

“They have to trust the robot,” he said. “They need to be able to use it like we use a smartphone today.”


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