Do you need a robot to help with your hospital gown?

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

hospital Here at Heart Sisters World Headquarters, yet another academic news release has crossed my desk, bursting with life-changing hype. This one is about hospitalized patients, especially those who are too ill or too weak to put on their own attractive hospital gowns.

The news from the Georgia Institute of Technology says that a million of us need daily assistance in getting dressed because of “injury, disease and advanced age.” What we need when we are admitted to hospital, apparently, is a robot to help us get dressed! (What we actually need, Georgia Tech, is to replace those hideous hospital gowns with what’s known as adaptive clothing, along with adequate healthcare staffing levels).

The Georgia Institute of Technology, ranked as the “smartest” public college in the U.S.(1), is working on a robot that can successfully slide hospital gowns onto people’s arms. This machine, called a PR2, relies on “the forces it feels as it guides the garment onto a person’s hand, around the elbow and onto the shoulder.”

Here’s my official response via Twitter to the Georgia Tech “news”:

Like many news flashes originating from university researchers and their communications offices, this one is all sizzle and no steak. Currently, the Georgia Tech robot is only able to slide the sleeve of a hospital gown onto the arm of a patient, a handy feature if all you need is to have one of your arms covered.

This technology is so new that it’s barely hatched. It has sometimes worked for staff in the lab so far, but even researchers themselves admit the project was, at times, a “spectacular failure” (for example, whenever the simulated robot applied dangerous forces to the arm when the cloth would catch on the person’s hand or elbow).

Stay away from me and my arm until you get that little glitch figured out!

And as in most not-yet-ready-for-prime-time announcements that you’re in a hurry to send out to the media anyway because your research lab will be presenting your findings at a big tech conference in Australia, “more research is needed”, especially if patients prefer covering their naked bodies with more than a hospital gown sleeve.

News releases like these have been described by some as “puffery”.

They are sent out en masse to media in the hopes that gaining media coverage will help to enhance awareness, or credibility, or prestige, or reputation as an innovative source of addressing unmet needs, or overall donor support of their institution.

As a person who spent over 35 years in a public relations career spanning government, corporate and non-profit PR sectors, I can relate – for this was my job, too. (Full disclosure: I’m not a scientist, but I did spend 20 years of my life living with a research scientist. Does that count at all?!)

In medicine, publicizing early results by leap-frogging over the lab bench to aim directly at the general public who read news headlines can be problematic.

Dr. Ray Moynihan is a former journalist, co-author of “Selling Sickness” and a senior research fellow at Bond University in Australia. As he told journalist Trudy Lieberman in an interview for Health News Review:

“My work on promotion and marketing in medicine suggests benefits are hyped and harms tend to be hidden way too often. This bias can flow from the news release straight into the media coverage, distorting public debate and painting an overly rosy picture of what health care can deliver.”

And Lieberman further added:

“The fluff of news releases simply serves to mask the real information that groups like Health News Review, The Association of Health Care Journalists, and many news organizations like Pro Publica and others believe consumers and patients need to know.”

The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review raised additional concerns about this collaboration between academic researchers and their institution’s publicity departments. For example:

“A dirty little secret of journalism has always been the degree to which some reporters rely on press releases and public relations offices as sources for stories. But recent newsroom cutbacks and increased pressure to churn out online news have given publicity operations even greater prominence in science coverage.”

This observation was backed up in a study published in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, in which researchers concluded(2):

“Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations.”

In fact, researchers found that 40 per cent of the academic releases sent out to the media were about early research with uncontrolled interventions, small samples (under 30 participants), or data that had never been accepted for publication in any scientific journal.

This paper elicited a hasty defense from academic communications types who send out news releases for a living, one of whom (Earle Holland at Ohio State University) does not apologize for hyping his institution’s research, and in fact blames lazy journalists and their editors for running unexamined news releases. He defended the common practice of sending out updates on early research to the media:

“Stating what kind of treatments the research could lead to is perfectly legitimate.”

So back at Georgia Tech, it might be possible to imagine that the hospital gown robot could one day morph into a daily hospital routine, even though it now simply strikes me as downright dehumanizing, and yet another example of how brainiac tech-types are seduced by developing something new just because they can. See also this guest post by Marie Ennis O’Connor: Designing With the Patient in Mind

As the founders of Inga Wellbeing* (a company that actually helps real live patients by creating “adaptive clothing” that is attractive to patients, yet practical for healthcare professionals to easily access dressings, tubes or drains) recently told me:

“Having a robot dress patients does not seem to be the answer. Better surely that clothing adapts to their needs than a robot drapes a gown over them?”

Well, not exactly “over them”.

Just an arm. . .

                      via Inga Wellbeing
1. Wai, Jonathan; Goudreau, Jenna (September 30, 2015). “The 105 Smartest Public Colleges In America”. Business Insider Inc.
2. Woloshin S, Schwartz LM, Casella SL, Kennedy AT, Larson RJ. “Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic?” Ann Intern Med. 2009;150:613–618.

Q:  Have you encountered media coverage of “life-changing” health news that turned out to be less than hyped?


See also:

Media watchdog Health News Review started a pilot project to help public relations  staff send out accurate and appropriate health-related news releases. Read more about this here: Improve PR news releases about health care/research

Science reporting by press release – by Christine Russell in the Columbia Journalism Review

Medical journalism watchdog slams cardiac ‘polypill’ news hype

What women with heart disease can learn from “pinkwashing”

* Mentioning Inga Wellbeing does not represent any form of endorsement of the company or its products.

11 thoughts on “Do you need a robot to help with your hospital gown?

  1. Hi Carolyn,
    It’s been a long time since I’ve commented on a post but I have been reading.

    I feel that this is a sad and wasteful use of robotics. If I had to be in a hospital and couldn’t dress myself I would hate the robot worse than the nurse. I would not want to go anywhere that removed the personal contact from the patient.

    I will not use self checkouts in stores for just that reason – no human contact, and the fact that I’m not employed by the store is the other. Some of the stores use this as a reason not to employ people. But I’ll never be that busy to not think about whose job is that self check. It’s one thing for the doctors to use the robotics as an aid to be able to do work on patients in areas they normal can’t, but to dress patients with robots serves no purpose.
    Take care,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Robin – I agree: it’s that utter lack of human touch that seems to disturb me most about this Georgia Tech robot idea. I’m with you about the self-checking at the grocery store, too. And ditto for the bank. I’ve known my favourite bank tellers by name for decades. It’s not that I spend that much time at the bank, but when I do drop in, I know that we’ll enjoy a chat and a laugh. I could save a few seconds (if there isn’t a huge lineup) by using the bank machine, but I’m old-school. I prefer contact with a real person and as we get older, maintaining simple human contact in our community will be even more important.


  2. I love robots – my favorite is my Roomba. She bumps into everything while cleaning but that’s probably because she’s looking for a way to get out of her chores. I’m not fooled though and make sure she’s always charged and ready.

    There are already lots of robots in the medical profession and I figure if they can be used for surgery and diagnostics, let them dress me – every time I’ve been in the hospital I was too tired or sick to talk to the real humans.

    I’m probably not the best one to comment though because when I’m not feeling good I prefer to just be left alone . . . probably even by a robot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you weighed in here, Judy-Judith! I think I want that little robot vacuum of yours…. 😉

      Funny you should mention robotic surgery… Here’s a kinda scary journal article reviewing “adverse events” during 14 years of robotic procedures. Device and instrument malfunctions were reported in – get this! – 75% of all procedures. These include falling of burnt/broken pieces of instruments into the patient, electrical arcing of instruments, and unintended operation of instruments. In over 10% of all events, the procedure had to be stopped and converted to “non-robotic techniques”. The study authors concluded these findings in doctor-speak as a “non-negligible number of technical difficulties and complications”. Yoiks!

      And also, if you’re too cranky to talk while hospitalized, you can always tell the nurse/visitor/doc to go away, but just try telling a robot that’s pulling on that arm of your hospital gown sleeve to do that!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If the rumbling robot gets too frisky with me I’ll just reach over, pull out its batteries and hit it over its antennae with my bed pan.

        I LOVE my i-robot Roomba vacuum – I bought it for my husband’s birthday present years ago, got it on sale and she’s been worth every penny . . . er dollar.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo, Carolyn, you are always so practical and down-to-earth — I so appreciate your common sense in articles like this!

    Although this aspect of dressing a patient was not mentioned here, it made me think of a recent story I read somewhere about various jobs/careers that are increasingly in danger of becoming replaced by technology. (Most of them were things like cashiering and food service. I see this in my own town, where a newly rebuilt McDonalds uses kiosks where, rather than talking to a person at the counter, you tap your order in as though on a giant smartphone, and then it’s actually delivered to your table by real people, which is a plus I guess — but I suspect there are a lot fewer employees there than before the restaurant was rebuilt.)

    I recall that nursing was not one of the endangered careers in question since it really does require people to do the job — but perhaps this robotic development could be indicative of such change even in nursing?

    Certainly much of nursing has become dehumanized with all the technology in place now. Seems like nurses frequently spend more time checking on the machinery than the patient. We sure don’t need robots to add to patient discomfort. We need kind, caring, smiling people who will ask how are you doing and fluff your pillow for you!

    I can just imagine a robot that fluffs your pillow . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Meghan for that interesting reminder about the nursing profession. Some technology does make sense to both patient care and nursing staff, but unless it helps BOTH parties, I fear much of it will simply be the brainchild of some bean-counting hospital administrator (just like the McDonald’s folks) looking for technology to shave pennies off his budget by asking “Does this care really need a HUMAN BEING?”

      In health care, most of the time this answer should be YES.


      1. Meghan, I think that the notion of let’s get machines to replace people is pervasive across all kinds of workplaces. As a former teacher, this drove me crazy. Many schools are pushing computer programs over instruction with real, live teachers. The argument is that technology is used everywhere, so students will be disadvantaged if they aren’t skilled with it.

        And I’m not saying that we should eliminate computers in the classroom altogether; there are some good online educational programs and websites — but even the best computer cannot do what a skilled, trained human teacher can do.

        A computer can drill a child in basic skills (letter sounds, times tables) and present an overwhelming amount of information… but our students need people to encourage, advise, help kids connect, evaluate and make sense of all these facts and non-facts that they are bombarded with.

        I haven’t been a student for many years, but I’ll never forget the math teacher who made algebra understandable and even interesting, because of his sense of humor and enthusiasm for math. Or the English teacher who encouraged me to write. Or the sixth-grade teacher who kept pushing me and telling me that I was capable of doing more than I was doing.

        How could any computer program ever do what those teachers did?

        Students, and hospital patients need other humans! And honestly, I miss the old customer service reps — when you could actually call a phone number and explain your problem to a real person, and not have to push 1 for this, and 2 for that, and three for something else.

        So no, if I ever have to go to the hospital again, I really don’t want to deal with the robot draping my hospital gown over my arm.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Lynn, our schools are a great example of an entire sector that has bought the all-tech=better movement hook, line and sinker.

          Yet not even experts can agree on this! Just this morning I read two conficting reports: one from the BBC in the UK on studies saying: “Investing heavily in classroom technology does NOT improve pupils’ performance”, and then the second from Stanford University saying (not surprising coming from the heart of Silicon Valley!): “Technology in schools can close achievement gaps, and improve learning”!

          I too have a favourite and unforgettable real life teacher: Mr. Mings, my high school Latin teacher, who absolutely loved Latin – and loved that I was good at it, too.

          But I can’t say I have a favourite or unforgettable computer program in my past…


          1. Hello Carolyn and Lynn,

            A lot of food for thought here and I agree with what you are saying. I too remember special teachers in my life with a lot of thankfulness to this day. I taught Art for about 25 years to private school and homeschool students, and I hope that I touched a few lives in a significant way. (I don’t know that you can teach Art with a computer program, not effectively anyway. My biggest job was just encouraging the students.)

            I think the biggest benefit of using educational computer programs would be that they are fun for kids to use (ie, the games-type programs) and my philosophy is that if you have fun learning you will retain the information much better than if it is a dry or rote experience. But a fun teacher is better than a fun computer program.

            We homeschooled our kids for 16 years and graduated all 3 from high school. Interestingly enough I found that many of the other older homeschool moms I knew avoided letting their kids use a computer for many reasons, generally because of the “evils” of the internet. By not teaching their kids to use the internet wisely when young, they actually missed out on a lot of good stuff there while setting their curious kids up to actively seek out the bad stuff in later life. Younger homeschool moms are doing just the opposite and getting their kids onto screens (smartphones and tablets as well as computers) as preschoolers. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know if you’re not tech-savvy in today’s world you will be at a loss.

            With all its pros and cons, homeschooling is the most personal form of education. You can’t beat one-on-one tutoring from the most caring teacher of all, the child’s parent. Learning for us was snuggling on the couch reading a good book together! Great memories!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Really interesting perspective, Meghan. I was thinking about art classes while reading your own story. I’ve done both: went to a real art college in the 60s (pre-computers) plus I’ve also watched the occasional online video tutorial ‘how to’ for specific art methods. There’s no comparison. The latter is a great convenience (not all of us can enroll in full-time studies!) but it’s a trend that may one day eclipse the value of real life interactions, just as buying books online will one day predictably mean the death of independent neighbourhood bookshops.

              I’ve always admired the dedication of homeschooling parents. You’re so right – the “most personal” form of education, and I suspect there’s a happy medium somewhere between unsupervised screen time and those parents who deny their kids access to the internet (is that even possible once your kids start going over to their friends’ homes to play?) I see how my little 3-year old granddaughter is utterly mesmerized by her mummy’s cell phone. She’d happily give up playing with her toys or books or her family to stare at a screen if allowed. She’ll be tech-savvy soon enough….


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