Med Tech Report

Is there a (robotic) doctor in the house?


In the 2012 movie “Robot and Frank,” an aging ex-jewel thief named Frank receives a robotic home assistant from his well-meaning son. Frank lives alone and suffers from dementia, and his son hopes that the friendly electronic companion will help keep his father safe, assisting him with housework and improving his cognitive health. Frank initially rejects the idea but changes his mind when he realizes the robot’s talents aren’t limited to domestic chores. He begins teaching the robot new skills, and an unlikely partnership develops. With Frank’s penchant for pilfering and the robot’s digital dexterity, the two of them pull off a multimillion-dollar jewelry heist – and Frank’s outlook improves in ways his son never dreamed possible!

Robotic nurse ©koya79/

“Robot and Frank” takes place “in the near future,” and while we don’t yet have robotic home companions as capable as the one in the movie, we need not look very far to realize that robotics and artificial intelligence may revolutionize the delivery of health care.

With an aging population and an industry shift toward value-based care, new research has focused on novel ways of avoiding hospitalization and reducing hospital readmission. We have seen a resurgence of home visits and the development of telemedicine and remote monitoring.

To stay healthy, patients need to be safe in their home environment and at a minimum need to be able to navigate their activities of daily living. Research published last year by Washington University’s Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems (CASAS) describes a technology that aims to help patients in their own homes.

The Robot Activity Support system, or RAS, interacts with intelligent sensors in a home environment “to detect and assist with activity errors that may occur in everyday settings.”1 If sensors in the home indicate that a person is experiencing difficulty completing a certain task such as taking a medication or finding a bathroom, a robot can navigate to the person in need and show an instructional video, or lead the patient to the next step in the process.

Another manufacturer is taking a ‘softer’ approach to activity support in the elderly. Toymaker Hasbro has developed a line of robotic cats that provide companionship and comfort. While currently limited to tactile stimulation and simple responses, the manufacturer is working in collaboration with researchers at Brown University to add artificial intelligence capabilities. The goal of the program – Project ARIES (Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support) – is to give the cats useful skills such as being able to provide medication and safety reminders while keeping their price point accessible to all.

Other organizations are attempting to take the robotic home health aide idea to the next level. “RUDY,” a robotic companion developed by INF Robotics, is capable of much more than just educating patients and leading them around the house. About the size of small child and wearing a huge smile, Rudy can detect falls, ensure medication adherence, provide social interaction, and even offer remote patient monitoring. According to the manufacturer, it uses natural language processing, machine learning, and a smart social interface to “facilitate trusting relationships between RUDY and older adults.” The idea is to promote acceptance from patients and offer peace of mind to their loved ones. This can be particularly valuable in assisting those with dementia, as a heavy emphasis is placed on socialization and maintaining cognitive stimulation.

Instead of developing novel artificial intelligence platforms, many groups are attempting to leverage existing technologies to assist patients in their homes. One such technology is Amazon’s Echo smart speakers, which became more attractive to health care providers on April 4 of this year with the launch of the Alexa Healthcare Skills Kit. This is Amazon’s HIPAA-compliant application programming interface (API) that allows developers to create ‘skills’ (apps for Echo devices) that can securely handle protected health information.

At launch, Amazon announced six partner organizations who have already written skills for patients. One organization, Boston Children’s Hospital, developed a skill called My Children’s Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS). According to John Brownstein, the hospital’s Chief Innovation Officer, it “allows patients and caregivers to easily share recovery progress with their care team post surgery ... it is just one example of how voice technology can extend the care and support of our patients beyond the four walls of the hospital.”

Some companies, such as HealthTap, have been working on artificial intelligence to build a platform to allow physicians and patients to interact online. HealthTap is leveraging the wisdom of those interactions to power a deep learning system called Dr. A.I. Available for Alexa and mobile devices, it attempts to assess patients’ symptoms and provide personalized medical explanations and health recommendations. In the developer’s own words: “Dr. A.I. engages with you in an empathetic conversation about your symptoms and overall health ... then gives you appropriate doctor-recommended insights as well as the best possible courses of action you can take on the road to feeling good.”

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik of Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik

Some physicians may find this movement troubling, but we believe it represents an early glimpse of what is to come. As technology gets smarter and patients become more comfortable interacting with it, there will be greater demand for virtual caretakers and digital doctors, with no shortage of companies stepping up to meet the demand. While it’s doubtful the robots they create can be easily reprogrammed to steal jewelry, it won’t stop them from trying to steal our jobs. We as physicians will need to continue to hone our skills in compassion and empathy to provide something a computer never can: true care for our patients.

Dr. Notte is a family physician and associate chief medical information officer for Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. Follow him on twitter (@doctornotte). Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and an associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Jefferson Health.


1. Robot-enabled support of daily activities in smart home environments. Cogn Syst Res. 2019 May. doi: 10.1016/j.cogsys.2018.10.032.

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