Lacking healthcare workers, Germany turns to robots for elderly care

The white-colored humanoid “Garmi” doesn’t look much different from a typical robot: it stands on a wheeled platform and is equipped with a black screen on which two blue circles that act as eyes are attached.

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

Garmi can not only diagnose patients, but also provide care and treatment for them. Or at least, that’s the plan.

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

About 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 based its specialized geriatronics unit in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a ski resort that is home to one of the highest proportions of older people in Germany.

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

With the number of people in need of care growing rapidly and an estimated 670,000 carer jobs remaining unfilled in Germany by 2050, researchers are racing to devise robots that can take over some of the tasks performed today by nurses, caregivers and doctors.

“We have ATMs where we can get cash today. We can imagine that one day, according to the same model, people can come for a medical examination in a kind of technology center,” said Abdeldjallil Naceri, 43, a senior scientist at the laboratory.

Clinicians could then evaluate the robot’s diagnostic results remotely, something that could be particularly valuable for people living in remote communities.

Alternatively, the machine could offer a 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 family and friends.

– ‘We have to arrive’ –

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

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

Medical data immediately appears on the doctor’s screen.

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

In addition to the retired doctor, other doctors also regularly visit the lab to offer their thoughts and feedback on the robot.

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

Anyone can guess when Garmi might be ready on a commercial scale.

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

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

– Question of confidence –

And if it is ever implemented, residents of the Sankt Vinzenz retirement home in Garmisch, a project partner, will likely see Garmi buzzing through the halls.

Just thinking about it made Ms. Rohrer, a 74-year-old resident of the house, smile.

“There are things that a robot can do, for example, serve a drink or bring food,” he said as Eva Pioskowik, the director of the home, did her nails.

Pioskowik, who battles staff shortages daily, said he did not expect the robot to replace health workers.

“But it could allow our staff to spend a little more time with the residents,” he said.

For Naceri’s team, one of the great challenges is not technological, medical or financial.

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

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


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