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Robots to Health Care Workers: Give Us Your Jobs, Please


Mid-level hospital jobs that don’t require a Bachelor’s Degree are quickly disappearing. The WSJ reports:

Positions such as licensed practical nurses and medical-records clerks are being eliminated or pushed out of hospitals into lower-paying corners of the field such as nursing homes. Meanwhile, positions that were once an accessible first rung on the career ladder, such as registered nursing, increasingly require at least a bachelor’s degree.

Why is this happening? Several factors are at work, but a central one is that automation is eliminating a lot of traditional health care jobs.

Most of the experts interviewed by the WSJ were worried about all these job-stealing robots. Health care, after all, has become one of the last remaining fields in which one could earn one’s way to a middle class lifestyle without a college degree. In a time of growing economic inequality, the elimination of these jobs seems quite discouraging.

But while the costs are real, there are plenty of upsides too. The most obvious are the efficiency gains that come with automation. Robots can do some jobs better, cheaper, and faster than humans. They can transcribe and store information, help doctors and nurses diagnose their patients, and even allow lower-skilled health care workers to treat patients with less oversight from doctors and other higher-skilled workers. We desperately need to capitalize on the benefits of medical tech if we want to get our health costs under control.

What about the workers who will lose their jobs? This is, of course, bad news for them in the short term. We should find ways of helping them find work elsewhere. But this is how technology functions. It displaces people, yes, but it also creates new ways for them to make a living:

The shift to electronic medical records…has eliminated many traditional jobs maintaining patient records but has created a wealth of new opportunities for those with coding skills.

This is why it’s so important that our schools actually teach the skills necessary to seize these new opportunities.

[Hospital technology image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Alexander Scipio

    Good. When Obama / SEIU / AFSCME / HIlary order one day that all healthcare workers under Obamacare (eg ALL healthcare workers) are now part of SEIU or AFSCME, that they will be laundering their taxpayer salaries through the unions directly to the DNC, fewer people will be in those unions and robots don’t pay union dues… yet.

  • LivingRock

    Couldn’t part of the equation be that nurse practitioners be elevated to more responsibility in the wake of overly expensive M.D.’s? Medical technology will hopefully reduce costs and make care more efficient, and some workers do stand to get technologically replaced. But to me, some of these nurses could be given more responsibility to supplant some of what M.D.’s do but regulations are preventing them from doing so. Of course, M.D.’s probably love the protection of regulations that make it so their expensive service is required by regulatory mandate.

    As a relatively healthy 30 year old (knock on wood), I’m lucky enough to have a nurse practitioner free of charge at the point of care provided by my employer, and I honestly have only been to see an M.D. once in the past two years. Given that there are hundreds of employees at my workplace that has to save everybody, including my employer who provides health coverage, some money. And this nurse who certainly didn’t have to go through eight years of expensive schooling is dutifully employed.

  • LivingRock

    Pardon what may be a bit of tinfoil hat moment, but is it possible that old Blue Modelers see healthcare reform towards cost reduction and efficiency as a threat to employment? If that’s remotely the case, it’s crap. To me it’s clearly in the country’s best interest to get healthcare costs down for many reasons. The medical field is a provide-healthcare efficiently field, not a gov’t-stifles-innovation jobs program.

    • Andrew Allison

      I don’t think they’re that smart. Given that collectively we seem to want more than we can afford, we need to apply the resources we have as effectively as possible. To carry the thought to a ridiculous extreme, why is anybody spending a decade obtaining a Ph.D in order to drive a taxi?

  • Andrew Allison

    In my humble opinion, this Quick Take completely misses the mark. VM has, astutely, in the past noted that there are radical shifts underway in the job market (jobs which don’t require a lot of thought being automated) and qualification inflation (a degree being required for a job which doesn’t require one).
    Surely the message here is that data-entry and -evaluation jobs are disappearing while opportunities for, broadly-defined, “service providers” are increasing.

  • Luke Lea

    “W hat about the workers who will lose their jobs? This is, of course, bad news for them in the short term. We should find ways of helping them find work elsewhere. But this is how technology functions.”

    That’s the old story. The new story is that, what with massive low-skilled immigration and free trade with low-wage countries overseas, these displaced workers are liable to take a big hit in their accustomed standard of living — forever.

    • Andrew Allison

      They tried that in France, the new sick man of Europe. The problem is that labor must be cost-effective (c.f. Detroit!). As noted below, we need to maximize the productivity of the labor force and minimize the cost of training it.

      • Luke Lea

        How sick is France really? I sometimes get the feeling that the death of the European Model, especially in France and Germany, have been greatly exaggerated.

  • BobSykes

    Automation bites highly educated people, too. It already has eliminated many engineering jobs, and lawyers are starting to be affected. Any job that is essentially information processing is liable to be automated. It is in fact jobs that require a high degree of manual skill that are hard to automate. Assembly line workers did low/no skill tasks that were highly repetive, and they were easily automated.

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