Health workers in short supply, Germany uses robots to care for the elderly

Photos by Christoph Stache. Video by Pauline Curtet

The white humanoid “Garmy” does not look much different from a typical robot – it stands on a platform with wheels and is equipped with a black screen, on which two blue circles are attached, acting as eyes.

But retired German doctor Gunther Steinbach, 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 the product of a new sector called geriatrics, a discipline that uses modern technologies such as robotics, IT and 3D technology for geriatrics, gerontology and nursing.

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About a dozen scientists built Garmi with the help of medical practitioners like Steinebach of the Munich Institute for Robotics and Machine Intelligence.

As part of the Technical University of Munich, the institute bases its unit specializing in geriatrics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a ski resort that is home to one of the highest percentages of elderly people in Germany.

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

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As the number of people in need of care grows rapidly and an estimated 670,000 caregiver positions will remain unfilled in Germany by 2050, researchers are racing to create robots that can take over some of the tasks performed by nurses today , caregivers and doctors.

“We have ATMs where we can get money today. We can imagine that one day, based on the same model, people can come to get medical checkups in a kind of technology center,” said Abdeljalil Nasseri, 43, the lab’s lead scientist.

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

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Alternatively, the machine could offer a more personalized service at home or in a nursing home – by serving food, opening a bottle of water, calling for help in the event of a fall or organizing a video call with family and friends.

In the laboratory in Garmisch, 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 in front of Garmi, who placed a stethoscope on his chest, an action directed by Steinebach from afar via a joystick.

The medical data immediately appears on the doctor’s screen.

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“Imagine if I had that in my old practice,” Steinbach said as he moved the joystick.

Apart from the retired doctor, other medical practitioners also visit the lab regularly to offer their ideas and feedback on the robot.

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

It’s anyone’s guess when Garmi might be ready on a commercial scale.

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

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

And if it is indeed implemented one day, the residents of the Sankt Vinzenz nursing home in Garmisch, a partner of the project, will probably see Garmi running through the corridors.

Just the thought of it made Mrs. Rohrer, a 74-year-old resident of the home, smile.

“There are things a robot can do, like serve a drink or bring food,” she said as Eva Pioskovic, the home’s director, did her nails.

Pioskowik, who struggles daily with staff shortages, said she doesn’t expect a robot to take the place of health workers.

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

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

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

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


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