Can new technology improve healthcare for patients and workers?

June 24, 2020

COVID-19 has made so clear that healthcare workers — whether janitors, nursing assistants, registered nurses, or doctors — play a critical role in our society and economy. Yet even as these people risk their lives to keep us healthy, they are facing major changes in their jobs as hospitals and healthcare companies introduce new technology.

Today, we’re releasing a new report with the UC Berkeley Labor Center exploring how technology — video-conference doctors visits, robots that deliver supplies and clean rooms, machine learning algorithms, and many more — could affect both the kind of care patients receive and the lives of people working in the healthcare industry.

This transformation, which is being accelerated in many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, presents an important choice: will we allow the introduction of new technologies to undermine the quality of healthcare jobs, leaving the strengths of healthcare workers underutilized and patients underserved? Or will organizers and policymakers seize this opportunity to create better outcomes for patients, workers, and communities?

The report, written by Cornell professor Adam Seth Litwin, finds that the technologies most likely to be adopted in healthcare are unlikely to reduce the demand for healthcare jobs, but how those technologies are deployed will have significant impacts for both patients and healthcare workers:

  • If we continue along the current default path — where decisions about technology are largely made by developers and hospital administrators — the healthcare industry will fail to recognize the full value that workers such as nursing assistants, orderlies, home health aides, and personal care attendants can bring. People will be asked to fill in the gaps of what technology cannot do, and both workers and patients will suffer as a result.

  • Instead, we should start by asking “what are humans uniquely capable of?” and use technology to help them excel at those skills. This work-centered approach prioritizes technological change that supports skill development and improves job quality for healthcare workers. The result? High-quality, career-building jobs for healthcare workers, reduced healthcare costs, and improved access and quality of care for patients.

This research follows our previous studies looking at other sectors that are likely to be impacted by technological change: in warehouses and in trucking.

Across industries, we are starting to see a similar trend: robots and technology will not take all our jobs, but they have the potential to significantly impact the quality of jobs, particularly for low-wage workers of color.

Healthcare is one of the largest and fastest growing parts of our economy, employing 18 million people. Black and Latinx workers and women are overrepresented in these positions like nursing assistants, orderlies, home health aides, and personal care attendants, which continue to be paid low wages despite filling essential roles. And compared to other sectors, healthcare workers are more likely to have the collective voice in their jobs that comes with being members of a union.

With the right steps by policymakers, advocates, and organized workers, healthcare can thus set an important high-road model for the future of work — one where Black and Brown people and women are employed in quality, career-building jobs that play to their strengths as they continue to provide essential care.

COVID-19 has shown how brave and dedicated healthcare workers are. As both advocates and patients, we want them providing the care and human connection you’ll never get from a robot.

The well-being of healthcare workers is deeply tied to the welfare of us all. In this time of intense change, we must rally together to shape decisions that will benefit workers, patients, and communities.