Elderly Care in the Age of Machine and Automation

By Aobo Dong

Would you be willing to accept a professional care-giving robot as a replacement to a human companion when your loved ones are far away from you? During last week’s HLS Health Law Workshop, Professor Belinda Bennett provided a great overview on the imminent age of machine and automation and the legal and ethical challenges the new era entails, especially in health care law and bioethics. After discussing three areas of potential health law complications, Professor Bennett argued that the field of health law is undergoing a transition from the “bio” to the “digital” or “auto,” and that instead of playing a catching-up game with rapidly evolving technologies, more focus should be placed on learning from past and existing laws and regulations in order to meet new demands from the “second machine age.” However, I wish to propose a closely-related but alternative paradigm, that is, using the issues raised by new technologies as a vehicle for improving existing laws and reshaping social norms that once made existing laws inadequate or flawed. I will elaborate on my point through the author’s own example of elderly care.

Despite the fact that the author advocates a revisionist approach for thinking about health law and technology, her paradigm is still about laws serving the needs and solving concerns of the tech industry intersected with health care. I wonder whether it would be productive to view the issue from the opposite direction, that is, how could new technologies and the challenges they raise inform us about existing laws (revealing blind spots or providing opportunity to improve unjust/unfair/discriminatory laws). Viewed this way, we could not only strengthen connections between past laws and future technologies, but also be guided by a clearer sense of how future legal reforms and regulations could redress past neglect and meet new challenges. Continue reading

Loneliness as epidemic

By Wendy S. Salkin

Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article confirming that, indeed, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness. There is “mounting evidence” that links loneliness to illness, as well as “functional and cognitive decline.” What’s more, loneliness turns out to be a better predictor of early death than obesity.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who has spent much of his career working on loneliness, defines “loneliness” as “perceived social isolation.” Similarly, Masi, et al. (following Russell, et al. 1980) define “loneliness” as “the discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships.” As Masi, et al., point out, there is a distinction to be made between loneliness, on the one hand, and social isolation, on the other, although the two phenomena may indeed often go together. Whereas social isolation “reflects an objective measure of social interactions and relationships,” loneliness “reflects perceived social isolation or outcast.” Following Peplau & Perlman 1982 and Wheeler, et al. 1983, they go on to point out that “loneliness is more closely associated with the quality than the number of relationships.” (It’s important and timely to note that the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, brought out one application of this conceptual distinction in his song, “Marchin’ to the City,” when he sang: “Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around the more you feel alone.”)

The health risks posed by loneliness are several and can be severe. Loneliness can contribute to increased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. In a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis in Heart, Valtorta, et al., reported that “poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident CHD [coronary heart disease] and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.” And in a March 2015 meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Holt-Lunstad, et al., reported that a substantial body of evidence supports the following two claims:

  1. Loneliness puts one at greater risk for premature mortality. In particular, “the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.”
  2. The heightened risk for mortality due to “a lack of social relationships” (whether reported loneliness, social isolation, or living alone) is greater than the risk due to obesity.

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