The world of work is constantly changing. It may be the global pandemic has shifted how work is performed or new technologies and inventions may change a role’s functions or responsibilities. Sometimes these shifts have completely eliminated occupations – think switchboard operator, milk delivery man, or elevator operator/lift man. Being up to date and knowledgeable about how work is performed and different job functions is a key responsibility of claims professionals managing income protection, lump sum, or waiver of premium-type claims.
Understanding how an occupation is performed plays a central role in determining if the insured may qualify for benefits and assists in exploring return-to-work opportunities.
Let’s look at a few examples of changing job responsibilities impacted by the introduction of robotics and technological advances – and how these changes may impact Disability claims management.
Although not fully functional, tests are occurring throughout the world to create and use self-driving vehicles. In the U.S. research and testing continues on the use of autonomous tractor trailers over major highways, with the idea that eventually these trucks will not need a person to drive them.1 In the autonomous truck future, trucking companies would set up hubs outside major cities and the autonomous trucks would take freight from one hub to the next over highways. A human driver would be involved only when it was time to move the freight from the hub into the city, as city driving has more variables with people, nuanced traffic patterns, businesses, and schools.
In China robo-taxies and shuttle services are currently being tested. Two lanes of a 62‑mile stretch of freeway outside Beijing are dedicated to autonomous vehicles.2 The pilot program is designed to give autonomous vehicles access to real-world traffic conditions and minimize risks for human drivers. We already see this in San Francisco with autonomous vehicle taxi rides.3
Imagine the change to driver occupations if vehicles can drive themselves. Will there be a need for human drivers? What about the impact to people as they age and find driving too challenging; might autonomous vehicles assist those with Long Term Care needs?
Although not new, hydroponic farming, also known as climate-proof farming or indoor vertical farming, is becoming more prominent. The Aztecs were reported to use floating gardens for farming in the 10th century, and the Chinese have been growing rice in water since the 13th century. We are seeing how this is shifting farming today – no more soil, and the physical demands are different.4
Robots, or farm bots, are being used for a multitude of applications in farming including:5
- Testing and scanning the condition of produce
- Harvesting produce such as grapes, apples, and nuts
- Hoeing rows of produce such as lettuce
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and weed-learning software to identify plants for placement of herbicides, fertilizers, and insecticides
- Automated Milking Systems (AMS) allowing cows to be milked by machine without human labor. These systems were originally developed in Europe to address labor shortages but now the focus is on both labor issues and improving the dairy farmer’s lifestyle.6 The farmer no longer needs to get up at 4 a.m. to milk. The AMS allows cows to milk themselves, generates reports and data about the quality and production of each cow and the milk they produce, and then sends the reports to the farmer via their smartphone or computer.
These farm bots are changing the way traditional farming has been done.
Manufacturing: 3D Printing and Exoskeletons
Shifting from plants or factories to construction shows us how the use of robots and 3D printing is changing how buildings are being built. Construction is using 3D printing and manufacturing in an array of ways. The talk show Good Morning America ran a story in 2019 about the possibility of creating a 3D printed house and how this may change the role of architects and builders. The story suggested we are a long way away from this possibility and cited it being used to prototype fashion with community housing. However, three years earlier, in 2016, the Dubai Future Foundation actually completed a 3D‑printed functional office building.7 The building was printed in 17 days and assembled in two.
Robots are not new to manufacturing. We have seen assembly line technology where robots screw on nuts and bolts, move product, and assist with assembly.
Exoskeletons are an external skeleton that supports or protects a body. Ford Motor Company has been using them since 2018 to assist workers to improve or boost performance in their manufacturing environment.8 The robot helps with strength, fatigue, and injury prevention.
Already we can see them being used in rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries to help them walk again. Their use could potentially prevent injuries – or, if an injury has occurred, might this technology allow a worker to return to work wearing an exoskeleton to assist with activities such as lifting?
Telemedicine has been around for decades, but the COVID‑19 pandemic shifted routine medical care from office settings to virtual sessions. A 2021 McKinsey & Company study found the use of telehealth is 38 times higher post-pandemic in the U.S. than before and utilization levels have stabilized, ranging from 13‑17% of medical consultations across all specialties.9
There are specialists, such as optometrists, who can practice completely virtually. One company has developed software that allows patients to have an exam with a licensed optometrist in another location. An ophthalmic technician preps the patient and once ready, the optometrist connects virtually and performs the exam. The company provides services in 23 U.S. states and three Canadian providences. This work was developed before the pandemic and again demonstrates shifts in how occupations are performed, no need for the optometrist and patient to be in the same room.10
What does this increased use of telehealth mean for the medical services provider? Potentially more screen time, and less reaching, bending, or twisting. Could a family practice physician or an optometrist still perform his or her occupation if he or she has a broken leg but spends most of the day providing virtual healthcare?
Robotics and Surgeons
The use of robotics in surgery started in the mid‑1990s and continues to grow. The Global Surgical Robotics Market report published in 2021 indicated the worldwide surgical robotic market generated $5.46 billion in 2020 and is estimated to reach $16.77 billion by 2031.11 Intuitive is the company with the largest market share, at 79%, but the competition is growing, with 65 start‑up companies in the last few years.
Intuitive’s website advertises that their product is in 69 countries, and that a surgeon starts a procedure every 19.8 seconds with their “da Vinci” surgical system.12 Robotic surgery is being done in multiple specialties: orthopedics, gynecology, urology, oncology, and cardiology.
Robotic surgery is transforming operating room protocols in several surgical specialties. In this video, gynecologic oncologist Dr. Whitney Goldsberry describes to me how robotic surgery is performed and discusses the merits of robotic surgery for both the doctor and the patient.