Social Robots Can Help Hospitalized Children

Social Robots Can Help Hospitalized Children

New research shows that so-called social robots used in support sessions in pediatric units can lead to more positive behavior in hospitalized children.

Many hospitals and medical centers host interventions in pediatric units, where specialists will provide interventions to sick children for developmental support. This involves preparation, plan, education, as well as a behavioral distraction for medical care (before and after complicated procedures). Traditional interventions include balancing the environment through various activities such as games, crafts, celebrations, and more.

For the study, researchers from the MIT Media Lab, Northeastern University, and Boston Children’s Hospital created a robotic teddy bear – Huggable. More than 50 children were split into three groups that involved Huggable – a traditional plush teddy bear and a tablet-based or virtual Huggable. The outcome – Huggable improved patient results over those two options.

The study showed the feasibility of including Huggable into the interventions. However, the results also demonstrated that children playing with Huggable experienced more positive emotions. They also got out of bed sooner, moved around more, and connected with the robot, asking personal questions. They also invite the robot to come back to meet their friends and families. Improved physical, as well as, emotional outcomes are positive factors that could contribute to faster and better recovery.

Robots Can Help Hospitalized

Even though it is a small study, it is the first one to explore robots in a real-world pediatric setting with sick children. Other studies have been done in labs and have included very few children. They were also conducted in public settings without any patients.

Huggable is created to assist health care doctors but not to replace them. You can see it as a companion. These technologies are designed with the mindset that they should work in a team. And not just at the robot-child interaction. It is more than that. It is about parents and specialists. Technology is here to support everyone who is invested in the care of a child.

Staff provides a lot of human interaction to help improve the hospital experience, however, they can’t be with every child, all the time. Robots, on the other side, create a more consistent presence. There may also be children who don’t always want to talk to other people and respond better to having a stuffed animal next to them. It is pretty exciting knowing what kind of support we can offer children who may feel scared or isolated.

Improving Mood

First designed prototype in 2006, Huggable, is a teddy bear with animated eyes. Even though the goal is to make the plush teddy bear robot as autonomous as possible, it is operated by a specialist in the hall outside the children’s area. By using custom software, the specialist can control the facial expressions, as well as, the body actions of the robot. The specialists could talk through a speaker with their voice shifted to a higher pitch so it can sound more childlike. The tablet-based avatar had identical gestures and was remotely operated.

During the medical interventions (involving kids ages 3-10 years) a specialist would sing rhymes to children through the robot and move the arms when singing. Older children would play games where they have to guess an object described through Huggable.

Through questionnaires and reports, the researchers recorded how much children and familiars liked using Huggable. Other questionnaires involved the patient’s positive moods. The researchers also used cameras in the child’s room to analyze and capture speech patterns, describing them as sad or joyful.

A greater percentage of children reported that they enjoyed playing with Huggable more than with a traditional teddy bear. Specific speech analysis backed up the final outcome, discovering more joyful expressions among the kids during robotic interventions.

Automated (Take-Home) Bot

The study generated insights for developing an autonomous robot which is the end goal. They determined which gestures are used least and most often and which features doctors may want for future interventions. For example, Huggable could introduce doctors before they visit children or discover a kid’s interests and share information with doctors.

The researches may add computer vision so the robot can discover certain objects in a room. The robot is in the early studies and it is currently used to capture data. If the bear is automated it can provide high-quality care. That automated robot could be used to improve the standard of care. Children can take home a robot after a medical intervention or a hospital visit to support engagement, monitoring well-being, and improve continuity of care.

Researchers want to continue thinking about how this technology (the robots) can become part of the clinical team and help not only children by older people as well. When the robot goes home, researchers want to see the robot monitor the patient’s progress. If there is something doctors need to know, the robot can let them so they are not surprised at the next appointment.

We are hoping to see more of this modern technology and maybe discover which patients may benefit the most from Huggable.

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