Scientists are exploring the possibility of using robots to help treat the Ebola epidemic. This development, while still in its early stages, has the potential to significantly improve our Ebola response efforts. However, the use of robots in the medical field also raises legal questions, both in the United States and abroad.

Scientists are exploring the possibility of re-purposing robotic technologies used in disaster situations to help contain Ebola. These robots, which currently can drive cars and disarm bombs, may be able assist with waste removal and the burial of bodies. This would significantly limit human contact to infected persons, lowering the risk of the disease spreading. Hospitals are also exploring the possibility of using robots to diagnose Ebola or allow families to virtually visit with infected relatives. In order to further this goal, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has organized a series of brainstorming meetings on the subject.

However, scientists warn that the use of robotic technology in medical situations is currently limited, and that robots may still be years away from having the functionality to perform complex medical tasks. Robots do not currently possess the dexterity needed to replace a human health care provider. Robots that move independently and display anywhere near human levels of dexterity have only begun to appear in laboratories, suggesting that they are nowhere near ready to be deployed in a medical setting. There are also cultural obstacles to using robots to replace medical providers in treating Ebola victims. Scientists believe that families may object to a robot, not a human doctor, handling the bodies of their infected loved ones.

The use of robots to treat Ebola also raises significant legal issues. In the United States, hospitals may open themselves up to medical malpractice liability if they replace human doctors with robots. If the dexterity of the robot handling a patient does not match that of a human doctor, it is likely not to meet the legally required standard of care. This would allow the families of Ebola patients to bring massive lawsuits against hospitals if their relatives did not survive.

Robots may offer a much greater benefit in the West African countries where the Ebola epidemic began. There is a much higher risk of infection in these countries. Using robots for waste removal and burial of bodies would significantly reduce this risk. However, these countries will likely not be able to afford expensive robotic technology developed in the United States. This raises complex patent law issues for the manufacturers of robotic technology. If robotic technology has the ability to slow the global spread of Ebola, the United States’ government may feel the need to pressure these manufacturers to donate their technology or sell it at significantly below market prices.

While the use of robotic technology to treat and contain the Ebola epidemic is still in its earliest stages, it is worth further investigating the legal and technological issues surrounding it, to determine if robots can aid in slowing the spread of Ebola and future potential pandemics.


Daniel Rheiner

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