Family angry as dying man is delivered test results—via robot

The collision between emerging robotics and human emotion will never be more acutely felt than in the healthcare industry.

Here’s a fascinating story (spotted by my colleague) about a family left deeply upset after a robot, not a nurse, was despatched to tell a man he was gravely ill and about to die.

Ernest Quintana, 79, was taken to hospital on Sunday, the San Jose Mercury News reports.

His granddaughter was told a nurse was going to share some test results:

Then the video-device wheeled itself in. Another machine delivering oxygen through a mask to her grandfather made it so noisy she had to repeat the words over the video to him, and struggled to keep her composure as she realized the gravity of the situation when the doctor on the video told her “I don’t know if he’s going to get home” and suggested giving him morphine “to make sure you’re comfortable.” She videotaped the encounter, fearing she would forget what was said.

The hospital, run by US healthcare mega-chain Kaiser Permanente, offered its “sincere condolences”, though defended the use of the technology, even in such delicate situations. Spokeswoman Michelle Gaskill-Hames said the company was reaching out to discuss the families concerns, but:

Gaskill-Hames bristled at the characterization of the video device as a “robot,” calling it “inaccurate and inappropriate” and insisting that “in every aspect of our care, and especially when communicating difficult information, we do so with compassion in a personal manner.”

The Mercury notes the company that makes the robot, InTouch Health, does indeed call it a robot. Here’s its promo video:

There’s no question this technology is going to become more widely-used across the healthcare industry. And with very good reason: anything that can make the physician’s time more efficient is a good innovation for (our) health.

But yet, we must remain human.

The Mercury quotes Arthur Caplan from NYU School of Medicine’s ethics division as saying its rare for patients to be told they are dying via robot, but it is something with which we must become accustomed. The piece ends with Caplan acknowledging:

“The mere fact that this family was upset tells me we’ve got to do better.”