Using robots to help carers deliver care in the UK may seem like a distant reality, but in actual fact it is already happening. Lawyers and insurers dealing with personal injury cases may therefore be seeing such technology on their claims sooner than they think.
In July 2020, Hampshire County Council was the first local authority in the UK to trial the use of a robotic device that fits around a carer's waist to assist with lumbar support. The device is called the HAL Lumbar wearable cyborg and was created by a Japanese robotic company called Cyberdyne.
The device is said to support the carer's lumbar region whilst performing care tasks and moving patients, for example. It helps reduce the stress applied on the lumbar region and reduces the risk of back injury. It is also available to use by patients themselves, thereby reducing the extent that care is required in certain situations. The manufacturers claim that it has a waterproof function and a 4.5 hour battery life. A short video has been uploaded to Hampshire County Council's Facebook page demonstrating its use, which can be viewed here.
So what are the challenges when dealing with this new technology in litigation? BLM's Care, Statutory Funding and Rehabilitation Subject Matter Group has considered the possible impacts. One of the first questions that practitioners will ask is, how much does it cost? Unfortunately, that information is not widely available yet, although initial information suggests in the region of £4k pa when part of a larger order It appears from the manufacturer's website that the device is not available to rent to individual users at present. But it seems only a matter of time before these devices or something similar will be on the open market, having been well received by carers in Hampshire.
It is possible that these devices become the norm for carers in order to prevent injuries. Such a development would no doubt be welcomed by carers and many would encourage the use of technology to make the role of a carer safer. Defendants will however be concerned that these devices will significantly increase the cost of care packages. This may depend on how they become available to individual carers. One possibility is that the devices are fully or partly funded through Government schemes. But if these devices are at some stage expected to be purchased privately by care agencies, or directly employed carers, it is inevitable that arguments will arise in litigation concerning their use. The obvious argument is that the device has the potential to reduce the number of carers needed on a care package, especially where tasks require two carers due to manual handling risks such as turning a patient at night.
There is also the issue of other equipment used by carers. Will this new technology make some equipment redundant? Users will no doubt argue that traditional equipment will still be needed at times when the device is charging or when they cannot be worn.
Defendants will need to carefully consider the type of care the claimant requires if faced with a claim for these devices. A support worker, for example, accompanying a claimant into the community is unlikely to be carrying out the type of physical roles the device is intended for.
Ultimately, the introduction of this new technology in care has the potential to change the landscape for personal injury practitioners completely when dealing with care claims, meaning an expensive change for insurers but welcome support for carers.
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