Nurse Jackie or the Robot: You Choose
Showtime’s new series “Nurse Jackie” features Edie Falco as a Percocet-snorting nurse with a bad back and questionable judgment. If art imitates life, you may be pleased to know that hospitals are automating certain nursely duties. PC World reports that a Thai hospital is now using robots to move around pills and lab test samples such as blood and urine. The robot PillPicker sorts pills and dosages into individual plastic bags and affixes them with barcodes that identify the contents. A BoxPicker robot picks out the medicines that a patient needs, labels them with barcodes, and packages them. The hospital uses a tube system to send the medicine packs to the patient’s floor. (Unfortunately, the article reports that the robots bear no resemblance to beloved fictional robots like C3PO or R2D2).
The robots reportedly have improved the accuracy of medicine-giving at hospitals. The Institute of Medicine published a study called “To Err Is Human,” which noted that approximately 98,000 people die each year in the United States because hospital employees gave patients the wrong medicine. The automated nurses eliminate human mistakes caused by, say, exhaustion, overwhelming workloads, and maybe even Nurse Jackie-style drug addictions.
A note of caution is in order. First, when machines get things wrong, they get things wrong in a big way. While a tired nurse may screw up a few patients’ medicines, machines mess them up consistently. That is both the promise and the peril of automated systems. Second, as we increasingly trust machines, human beings lose the motivation to check them for mistakes. The phenomenon of automation bias bears relevance here. We trust computers to get things right. Right now, the PillPicker and its ilk are expensive and so hospitals in the U.S. have not yet embraced the trend. But as costs drop, we may see these robots replace our nurses and orderlies in the future, at least as to certain tasks. Time may tell whether we would rather have Nurse Jackie pick our pills or not.
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