Exoskeletons to support geriatric work: good or bad idea?

In the wellness world, exoskeletons are the current trend. Literally an outer skeleton, it consists of a structure that strengthens an entire part of the body. While some are starting to design them to help people with disabilities to walk, for the moment they are mainly developed to support high-risk occupations. Like handlers for example. But not yet in all trades requiring heavy lifting, such as the geriatric sector for example. Doctors caring for elderly people who sometimes cannot move at all.

American magazine SAGE Journals has launched a study on the subject. They fitted geriatric nurses with exoskeletons, collected and analyzed the results. With all these feedback, what is missing for exoskeletons to conquer the world of geriatrics?

Exoskeletons as medical equipment

The geriatric caregivers were equipped with “passive” exoskeletons, which are portable lifting aids, similar to harnesses, not powered by any source of electricity. The experience took place in 3 stages. First, nurses were not wearing any equipment. Then, secondly, only one of them wore an exoskeleton, then all the speakers were equipped in the third and final act. This allowed them, when their impressions were requested, to clearly distinguish the moments with or without an exoskeleton. And their impressions are mixed.

An added value to be refined

Most nurses have reported that exoskeleton relieves tension in the lower back when assisting the patient. However, only half said they intended to use exoskeletons in their work. They did indeed complain about a bad fit. They felt that wearing the exoskeleton made them more rigid and unable to react to unexpected situations. One area for improvement, they said a smaller, softer exoskeleton could be considered for use on a daily basis. In addition, it seems imperative that the exoskeleton be easier and faster to put in place due to the need for responsiveness of the nursing staff. A smaller size would also allow caregivers to hide the equipment from patients.

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A necessary discretion

The other great lesson of this study. It seems essential for exoskeleton to not be visible to patients. Nurses were concerned for their own safety when wearing the equipment, as patients could grab onto the device. In the care of dementia, it is very common for the patient to try to hold on to the caregiver. Second, health workers fear that wearing the exoskeleton will make them look “less human” to patients. An appearance of “robot” (the elderly being often less receptive to change) seemed to weaken the bond between nurses and patients. The latter, even if they showed indifference on the whole, nevertheless at times expressed some reservations. Some even sympathized with nurses who appeared “numb”.

Finally, doubts remain among users regarding the reliability of the equipment. This has the effect of increasing the stress of nurses who are already sensitive to this phenomenon. This is caused less by the reliability of the equipment tested than by a misunderstanding of new technology.

The geriatric wards invaded by exoskeletons, it’s not for tomorrow. It seems imperative that a second generation of equipment taking into account the specificities of the profession is to be made. More practical and discreet, in particular. To relieve a population very exposed to MSDs.