Ageing populations, rising obesity levels, and low staff retention have created a global healthcare crisis. In the UK, the National Health Service, already weakened by a tumultuous Brexit, has seen tens of thousands of its staff go on strike in 2023 to protest poor working conditions and low pay.

In the US, where over 40% of the population is considered obese, the number of preventable diseases is on the rise. Meanwhile, in the East, the healthcare systems in Japan and South Korea are in a precarious state largely due to rapidly ageing populations.

Robots – faster, better, and indefatigable?

Robots are being touted as the holy grail for the ailing healthcare industry. More and more so, robots are being used to assist in surgical procedures. Many robotic procedures have the advantage of greater speed, precision, and miniaturisation compared to traditional methods.

With no fear of fatigue, robots can perform a greater number of surgeries per day, alleviating unremitting waiting lists and offsetting the consequences of staff shortages.

Robots are also being developed as care companions. Care robots are anticipated to gain traction in countries, particularly with ageing populations. With an average age of 48, Japan has the world’s oldest population.

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Successive Japanese governments have invested in robots to mitigate labour shortages and provide care for its elderly. Although there are concerns regarding the impact of automation on employment, the use of care robots would enable round-the-clock assistance for those in need.

However, despite several conceptual robot demonstrations, they are still far from the norm within Japan. The permeation of care robots into society has been inhibited by several factors such as poor autonomous mobility.

Many machines paradoxically require humans to manoeuvre them into position or to change rooms. Additionally, the high cost of a care robot means that care facilities are unlikely to have sufficient numbers to cater to all of their patients. Further progress in autonomy and cost reduction may bring these machines closer to reality.

Robotics to treat the symptom, not the cause

The use of robots to rein in an increasingly chaotic healthcare industry presents many advantages. However, despite the fact that machines and automation will maximise efficiency and provide more continuous care, they will not treat the underlying problems. Poor health and low birth rates will continue to plague many populations around the world.

Countries such as Canada and Germany are attempting to reverse their ageing demographics by imposing flexible immigration policies that are expected to further benefit their birth rates. Japan, on the other hand, has been reluctant to accept immigrants, preferring to depend on technology to meet its labour demands.

Other countries such as South Korea are adopting a hybrid approach. As governments adopt divergent policies, it will be interesting to observe whether man or machine serves as the better solution.