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Finland's only healthcare robot works in Helsinki

Robots could bring millions in health care related savings, but experts say Finland is running in place when it comes to developing automation services.

Pepper, Finland's first and only robot working in the public healthcare sector. Image: Kari Ahotupa / Yle

Finland's social and health care sector is lagging in the use of cost-saving automation technology, according to robotics advocate Cristina Andersson.

Andersson is involved in a project by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health called Airo Island, which promotes the use of robotics, artificial intelligence and automation in Finland. She says that while strides have been made in digitalisation within the health care sector, the surface has barely been scratched when it comes to more developed tech.

"We're behind many countries in this regard," says Andersson, who has followed the domestic field since 2012. "Robots performing both manual and digital tasks could bring savings that might be crucial for the coming social service and health care reform (commonly known by the Finnish acronym 'sote'). Robots make fewer mistakes than humans."

In Helsinki nurses conduct daily tablet-based video check-ins on some 700 people, or roughly one-tenth of the city's home care patients. Human carers also visit the patients once a week.

Digital consultation

Juha Jolkkonen from Helsinki's office of social and health care says that more than half of the country's electronically conducted services are here in the capital.

"The number of users and the frequency of remote contact are increasing by leaps and bounds each year," Jolkkonen says. "We need to revamp our service infrastructure so that digitalisation is just one step in the process of development. And we won't wait around for the sote reform to get things moving."

Other changes include digital consultation in lieu of maternity clinic visits, with some 23,000 digital calls last year and 38,000 phone-in meetings, accounting for a fifth of all maternity services.

"Pepper" alone – for now

As futuristic as robotic support in health care may seem, the prospect is far less outlandish than common opinion may hold. A think tank called the Finnish Business and Policy Forum published a report in 2016 suggesting that 20 percent of all nursing staff could immediately be replaced with robots.

Around the same time, more findings were released by the Finnish Nurses Association together with robotics firm Digital Workforce, claiming that as much as 80 percent of nurses' jobs consist of logistics and IT – both tasks that robots are well equipped to deal with.

Even so, the only robot currently used by the City of Helsinki is a jolly-looking automaton called Pepper. The machine works at the new Kalasatama health centre, where it provides customer service to the delight of children and pensioners in particular.

Pepper did not replace any human employee, but rather was installed at the health centre as a pilot run to see how people respond to a humanoid machine that gives directions. It costs one thousand euros a month to maintain Pepper's functions, and the unit cost some 55,000 euros to purchase.

"It was an expensive purchase, certainly," says Helsinki health service chief Leena Turpeinen. "But Pepper works 13 hours a day, five days a week, and he's in it for the long haul."

Pepper may gain other colleagues in future if the test phase goes well, but ethical questions always arise when it comes to robotics.

"We need to better understand how long a patient can interact with a robot without human contact without any adverse effects," says technologist Andersson.

The human element is a central point in the city's digitalisation efforts, too, according to Jolkkonen.

"Digitalisation actually allows us to better reach and send in human carers when a patient needs them most," he says.