While disease burden from infectious neurological conditions such as meningitis improves as medicine advances, chronic issues that plague older populations such as Alzheimer’s and cerebrovascular disease will climb significantly.
In some areas, finding enough therapists to fulfill this growing need will be difficult. Australian employment of occupational therapists, for example, is projected to grow 15% from 2018-2023.2 Further, the job market for physiotherapists in the United States is expected to grow well above the average for other jobs, growing 28% from 2016-2026.3 These specialized therapists are expected to be in short supply; in fact, the government of Canada projected all health-care related jobs to be understaffed by 2026.4
Technology solves the supply-demand problem in stroke and neurological rehabilitation settings by allowing occupational and physical therapists to work with multiple patients efficiently.
However, robotic technologies will not place therapists out of jobs. Human interaction is a necessary part of health care and therapy, as many studies support. Patients with good therapeutic relationships with their healthcare providers tend to reach better health outcomes.5 However, therapists cannot do their best work and be the empathetic, critical-thinking rehabilitation experts to their fullest ability if their efforts are diluted. Removing the monotonous work of direct assistance with high-repetition exercises liberates the therapist to adequately oversee patient care at a high level.
Removing redundancies can allow the therapist time for research, for critical analysis, and for patient interaction. Preserving the therapy workforce is critical because in some regions of the world occupational therapist numbers are declining.
If the stroke or neurological patient population continues to increase while the numbers of therapists available to treat them decreases, the results are undesirable. Burned-out therapists are stretched thin in attempts to accommodate too many patients, who experience recovery delays due to inadequate treatment. These patients and their therapists are both subjected to increased adverse outcomes from lack of available resources. More intensive, repetition-based therapy is shown to have superior patient outcomes and can send them home sooner.
Burnout in occupational and physical therapists
Burnout has recently been recognized by the World Health Organization as a result of the effects of overwork. For therapists, increasing their patient load without assistance renders them susceptible to burnout, which translates to compassion fatigue, increased clinical errors, poor memory and judgment, and decreased job satisfaction. Work stress is a major contributor to burnout. Burned-out therapists cannot handle the burden of an increased patient load, so robotic rehabilitation devices can help prevent overwork by handling the repetitive tasks needed for optimal therapeutic outcomes.
Use robot resources to protect human resources
An American study in 2016 emphasizes the need for adequate occupational therapy services, stating that hospitals with the most spending on occupational therapy resulted in the fewest readmission rates. According to the authors, “…consulting OT in addition to physical therapy increases the intensity of inpatient rehabilitation therapy. It is likely that greater exposure to rehabilitation will improve strength and function and lead to fewer readmissions.”6
Therefore, wise spending on technology to take the burden off therapists can preserve the workforce while producing excellent rehabilitation outcomes for more patients. Global healthcare spending is expected to reach over 10 trillion USD by 2022, an increase from 7.7 trillion in 2017. Financial experts call for changes in current systems, “aided by digital technologies, [that] may help to solve today’s problems and to build a sustainable foundation for affordable, accessible, high-quality health care.”7 Technology bridges this gap between demand for therapy and today’s current limited supply.