Nurses vs. Robots: No Contest

Rebecca Hendren, March 1, 2011

An article about robotic technology caused a minor controversy last week when it appeared to imply that "nurse" robots could replace scrub nurses. The flurry of emails and discussion it generated illustrates the nursing profession's perception problems.

The seemingly innocuous piece discussed fascinating hand gesture recognition technology developed by Juan Pablo Wachs, assistant professor of industrial engineering, and others at Purdue University.

Visual recognition technology has previously been the purview of science fiction. With Wachs’ prototype, it's potentially a few short years away from implementation in operating rooms around the country.

The creators say the robot can recognize surgeons’ visual cues to pass instruments or recognize commands to display data during surgeries. The hope is that robots may reduce length of surgeries and potential for infection.

Robots may eventually perform some tasks now performed by scrub nurses, such as handing surgeons instruments. That’s where the debate begins. The article describes the high-tech machines as “robotic scrub nurses” and Wachs discusses the advantages the machines have over human scrub nurses when working with unfamiliar surgeons, for example.

It didn’t take long for nurses to complain to me about the use of the term “nurse” and the implications that robots could replace humans.

First, let’s look at the use of the term.

“There’s a lot of power in a name,” says Kathleen Bartholomew, speaker, author, consultant, and nurse. “The real problem is that the casual use of the word in this way validates what we already know—which is that the general public doesn’t know what we do.”

Rebecca Hendren Rebecca Hendren is a senior managing editor at HCPro, Inc. in Danvers, MA. She edits and manages The Leaders' Lounge blog for nurse managers. Email her at
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