Friendly robots help kids with medical procedures
Aidan Sousa used to dread visiting the Alberta Children’s Hospital for his asthma treatment – a monthly injection of a powerful steroid.
Now, getting his needles is much more fun for the nine-year-old because it means he can hang out with a new pal – a friendly robot who can help take his mind off the pain.
Thanks to community donations, the hospital now has four child-like robots to comfort and calm patients like Aidan during painful, frightening or intimidating medical procedures — everything from vaccinations and injections to bandage changes and blood tests.
The Alberta Children’s Hospital is the first in the world to use humanoid robots at the bedside for pediatric care. The two-foot tall robots – named MEDi (Medicine and Engineering Designing Intelligence) – act as pain coaches. They can speak 20 languages and are specifically programmed with sets of behaviours that match the steps of a medical procedure. MEDi can also walk, give high fives and even dance with a tap of a button on his head.
Aidan has needed the hospital his entire life. He was born two months early with many health issues, including underdeveloped lungs that resulted in severe asthma.
“I didn’t want to wake up and get out of bed on the days I had to go to the hospital because I knew it would be painful,” he says. “Now I’m excited to see MEDi and have fun with him while I’m there. He helps me with my needles.”
Aidan first met MEDi in 2011 as part of a research study to see if robots can calm young patients during medical procedures.
“Watching children screaming, struggling and pleading not to have procedures done, I realized they need to be easier, faster and far less painful,” said Dr. Tanya Beran, professor of Community Health Services and the lead investigator of the Alberta Health Services/University of Calgary research.
“I thought children might respond to humanoid robots to help them overcome painful procedures.”
Dr. Berran’s flu vaccination study found children reported experiencing 50% less pain when interacting with MEDi.
“It’s very exciting to see children’s reactions and how we are actually reducing children’s pain. Kids are already wired to accept new technology. They have their laptops, their cell phones, their gaming devices and now we are bringing humanoid robots into an environment where they can significantly help kids.”
Dr. Beran is currently building new applications for MEDi to be used during EEG tests and IV starts. The goal is also to use MEDi to help reduce kids’ anxiety in the waiting room and to educate them about care before they leave the hospital. Developers plan to further enhance the technology by personalizing the interactions through the use of facial recognition software, so MEDi would be able to greet children by name and customize his small talk to each patient’s history.
Aidan’s mom Sheila says MEDi has proven to be the perfect prescription for her son’s pain.
“Knowing MEDi will help other children who have the same struggles as Aidan makes it a wonderful addition to the hospital,” said Sheila.
“It’s great to see Aidan excited about going to the hospital – that’s a real indication that MEDi works wonders!”
The donor-funded robots will be used throughout the hospital, including the Vi Riddell Children’s Pain and Rehabilitation Centre.