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Welcoming immigrants and robots to fill the nursing shortage

Posted Dec 23 2009 9:57am

In Nursing crisis looms as baby boomers age, CNN Money repeats a well-known story: there are unlikely to be enough nurses to take care of people as they age. Nursing schools can’t keep up with the demand and trouble awaits. We’ll face a shortage of 260,000 RNs by 2025, we’re told.

I don’t really believe it’s such a big deal.

There are two good solutions to the problem, and they aren’t mutually exclusive:

  1. Increase the recruitment of nurses from abroad
  2. Substitute technology for labor

The first option is already in effect to some extent. But anti-immigrant attitudes and rules limit the number of non-US nurses here. There are also an ethical considerations; when nurses from middle income countries like South Africa and Thailand come to the US, it creates a shortage of nurses in those countries. Some of those shortages are filled by bringing nurses from poor countries to middle income countries. That leaves the poor countries bereft at a time of tough challenges such as HIV and TB.

The second solution essentially means replacing at least some nurses (or some of their functions) with technology, including robots. A lot of things nurses do will be doable by machine, if not this year then certainly by 2025. These robots will take many forms, but one could certainly be as a “personal medical assistant” that handles most mundane functions. It could check vitals, provide encouragement, remind patients to take their medications, and go beyond those tasks to other areas, such as playing games, cleaning the house, making food, and even engaging in pleasant conversation.

This technology trend shouldn’t encounter too much resistance from nurses, who after all should still have plenty of opportunities for employment.

The nursing workforce issues are real, but they provide opportunities for innovation, not cause for panic.

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