AI might be key to averting nursing care crisis

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A physical therapist uses an app analyzing how an elderly walks on a tablet computer in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

This fiscal year is being called year zero for so-called scientific nursing care, which utilizes technology to provide the most effective forms of support.

Experienced and intuitive staff equipped with the necessary skills to support elderly people are believed to be at the heart of the nursing care industry, but new approaches using artificial intelligence and IT are gaining momentum.

Gamifying care

Shogi prodigy Sota Fujii, the youngest player to win five titles, is known for using AI software to hone his skills. AI tools learn from game records accumulated over time and can quickly discover the best moves in the strategy game. Much to the surprise of shogi fans, AI software has beaten the game’s best players.

When researchers and experts in the field of nursing care technology explain their work, they often refer to technological developments in the world of shogi and go, because the way AI is being used in the strategy games is similar to the way it is being used in nursing care tech — huge amounts of data on areas such as physical functions, dietary status and rehabilitation are being collected, and the data is being used to find the optimal approach for patients.

In the world of nursing care, the emphasis has traditionally been on experience and intuition in the field. Unlike medical care, which has a clear goal of curing illness and injury, the nursing care industry has always placed importance on the satisfaction and happiness of care recipients, who are getting older and might have difficulty living on their own.

However, the industry is undergoing a major shift, from relying on experience and intuition to providing care based on scientific data.

National database

In fiscal 2021, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry launched a nursing care database called LIFE (Long-term care Information system For Evidence), which contains anonymous data from nursing care service providers nationwide on various information from the distance care recipients can walk to levels of their dementia, with the anonymity of the care recipients strictly kept.

The aim is to use the analysis to improve the quality of nursing care by determining such things as what kind of support was effective and to what extent.

To encourage the adoption of the database, the government has established a system under which providers will make additional money for entering records and improving their services based on the results of the analysis. Currently, about 60,000 care providers are contributing to and using the database.

Efforts by universities and private companies are also gaining momentum.

Researchers from Kyushu University and other institutions are developing a system that uses digital technology to learn the skills of experienced caregivers.

The goal is to use AI to analyze the experts’ skills and IT tools to enable anyone to efficiently acquire expert-level skills.

AI is already being used in practical settings, including software that creates care plans based on the type and frequency of services required by care recipients, and an app that analyzes how elderly people walk to help prevent falls.

Rising costs, labor shortage

The ballooning cost of nursing care and serious labor shortages are behind the growing push for AI use.

The total cost of nursing care in fiscal 2020 was ¥10.7 trillion, but in fiscal 2040, when the elderly population is expected to be near its peak, the cost is estimated to reach ¥25.8 trillion.

If AI can be used to moderate the decline in physical functions by helping people stick to optimal exercise and dietary routines, it could help slow the growth of nursing care costs.

AI is also seen as a tool that can help ease the shortage of nursing care workers. With a growing elderly population, the government estimates 690,000 more nursing care workers will be needed in fiscal 2040.

However, from the perspective of salaries and working conditions, significantly increasing the number of workers would be difficult. If technology makes the work more efficient, a similar quality of care could be provided with a smaller workforce.

Big data

Nursing care is an industry in which workers are in close contact with elderly people, and some people think the idea of data-based care is cold-hearted.

If an AI system determines that spending more time in rehabilitation will enable an elderly person to walk without a cane, optimal nursing care is not about simply encouraging the person to do so.

Some people in the industry are concerned about making care decisions that ignore the feelings of patients. However, “Nursing care and AI are compatible,” according to Yoichi Takebayashi, a specially appointed professor at Shizuoka University who conducts research on AI in dementia care.

AI can be used to better understand complex emotional states in people with dementia by analyzing their voices, facial expressions and behavior.

What is needed in the nursing care field is AI that combines logic and warmth.

“We can make data-based care more sophisticated by learning and enriching knowledge about nursing care, including the thoughts of dementia patients, their families, and specialists. This is where the value of introducing AI to nursing care lies,” Takebayashi said.