Taking your children to the doctor’s office is not always an easy feat. I have two children of my own, so I’m talking from experience! Now though, these visits might not be so arduous as researchers in Canada are turning to robotic technology to help calm young nerves in medical surroundings.
Researchers in Calgary, Alberta, have tested a new robot programmed to distract children during flu vaccinations, as initially reported by The New York Times. The study published in medical journalVaccine, found the “MEDi” (MEDi stands for Medicine and Engineering Designing Intelligence) robot reduced pain and distress in children getting the vaccinated from influenza at Alberta Children’s Hospital. The MEDi robot is a version of Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO robot, which reports estimate the cost around $15,000.
One of the researchers, Tanya Beran, a community health sciences professor at the University of Calgary said the children in the study were aged 4 to 9, who didn’t like needles and were prone to crying, yelling, kicking or screaming whilst around medical staff. There were 57 children in the study and they were split between a control group and a group who interacted with the MEDi robot during a vaccination. In the Alberta Children’s Hospital, MEDi introduced and greeted kids, asked for a high-five and talked about favourite movies and also played music for them. The pinnacle of the interaction was when MEDi asked the child to help clean up toys on a table in front of the robot: MEDi asked the child to help blow dust off one of the toys, a duck, just as the nurse prepared to give the child the injection. “That way the child is blowing at the same time the needle is going in the arm, because we know blowing is a way of relaxing the muscles…So if children are more relaxed, then they won’t be as distressed and experience as much pain.” Beran said. The children were “very in tune” and “very engaged” with the robot, such that they were distracted from the medical procedure, Beran said. “It would take their attention away just enough to reduce the pain and distress, but not to completely eliminate it…Kids were a bit calmer before they had the needle; during the needle, they experienced less pain; and then after the needle, they seemed to recover more quickly…Even parents had a more “pleasant experience” during the vaccine process and they smiled more when interacting with the robot than parents in the control group…It gave something for the parents to do, rather than to sit and sort of watch and try to figure out how they could help” she said.
Pain management research with robots is still a growing field and MEDi’s potential has yet to be fully realised. Moving forward, Beran and her team will be testing the robot with children getting blood drawn. This time, MEDi will even coach the child through the procedure and may walk kids out of the clinic at the end. “We’re hoping that that higher level of programming sophistication is actually going to distract kids even more.” In the future robots could be programmed to individualize pain management by maximizing distraction, depending on a patient’s age and gender; by playing sound effects while telling jokes, for example. “Kids are certainly wired for electronics and I think robots are certainly going to be coming more our way in the near future…and so I think it’s better to study now and understand now the propensity children have towards robots before they become commonplace.” Beran said.
Technology in pain management is not new, however, the use of robotics is an emerging field with far reaching avenues. Maybe by the time my grandchildren are born, a trip to the doctor’s office will include a visit by MEDi?
[Image via Newswhip]