Focus Technology Group senior technician Martin Little and
Gore Health Ltd chief executive Karl Metzler with one of
four 'healthbots' being trialled by Gore Health Ltd. Photo
by Helena de Reus.
Patients in Gore could be excused for doing a double take
the next time they are told: ''The 'doctor' will see you now.''
In what seems more like a futuristic vision, science fiction
has just become science fact, with Gore the first place in
New Zealand to use robots to provide interactive healthcare
After a successful trial at Selwyn Retirement Village in
Auckland, Gore Health is rolling out a non-human workforce of
six in its GP practice and patients' homes in a move designed
to reduce costs, save staff time, improve patients' health
and extend independent living and provide company for
long-term, chronic-care patients or the elderly.
The mobile robots can take vital signs, such as blood
pressure and heart rate, which are transmitted to clinicians
and caregivers. In an emergency, they can transmit text
messages indicating a problem. Voice-recognition software
allows them to communicate with patients, including reminding
them to take medication, as well as provide companionship.
Mobile robots are already found in various industries, often
on assembly lines, in the military, and as consumer products
such as vacuum cleaners. Some robots are already used in
healthcare environments overseas.
New Zealand's futuristic face of healthcare - known as
healthbots - comes from a joint research project between
UniServices, the University of Auckland and the Electronic
and Telecommunications Research Institute in Korea. The
project is supported by the New Zealand and Korean
Governments and the developers hope their robots will create
new high-value export opportunities for New Zealand.
Other healthcare providers here are keen to use robots if
they work successfully in Gore.
The possibilities of the technology are being embraced by
Gore Health, with chief executive Karl Metzler saying staff
and management were excited and privileged to be part of the
ground-breaking development. The project will certainly
further enhance Gore Health's reputation as an innovative
healthcare operator backed by a generous, dedicated
The locally-governed entity runs the community-owned Gore
Hospital and its associated health services including the
Gore Health Centre GP practice, and is setting up a $220,000
centre for rural health development in association with the
Southern Institute of Technology and the Gore Host Lions
The centre will be used for research and innovation, will
double as short-term accommodation for health professionals
and aims to address the struggle to attract doctors to rural
areas and reduce the cost of locums.
The Gore GP practice is one of 32 nationwide chosen to trial
E-chat, an electronic health risk assessment tool that allows
patients to provide details to their doctor about their
health while waiting for appointments.
It is also trialling with SIT a remote consulting tool
VitelMed, which allows patients or nurses to virtually
connect with a doctor.
There is no doubting the benefits of the various technologies
as the population ages, healthcare needs and the pressure on
the health system increase, and staffing rural healthcare
facilities remains difficult. And it is exciting Gore is
leading some of the changes.
But, as in other areas of our rapidly evolving world,
alongside the benefits there will also be those who question
some of the effects of technology - and what it leaves in its
Social networking websites have changed the way we
communicate, video and online gaming have changed the way we
play, interactive electronic devices have changed the way we
exercise. And while robots might now be able to check us
over, communicate remotely with doctors, provide
companionship for those living in isolation, and do goodness
knows what in the future, will they really ever fully replace
the need for good old-fashioned human contact - particularly
in times of need? Only time will tell, but we doubt it.
Those with such concerns would perhaps do well to consider Mr
Metzler's own explanation about the role of the robots:
''It's not about replacing doctors or nurses, it's about
complementing and supporting their roles,'' he said. On that
basis, few people would not hope the project is a success.