Social robots can help hospitalised children

27 June 2019

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of social robots used to support children in hospital. Many hospitals provide interventions in paediatric units run by healthcare professionals. These involve play, preparation, education, and behavioural components and are run as part of routine medical care as well as before, during and after difficult procedures. Although it is a small-scale study, it is the first to explore social robotics in a real-world inpatient paediatric setting.

The current research conducted by the MIT Media Lab, Boston Children's Hospital, and Northeastern University deployed a robotic teddy bear, called ‘Huggable’, across a number of paediatric units at Boston Children's Hospital. Approximately fifty patients were randomly split into three groups of interventions that involved the robot Huggable, a tablet-based virtual version of Huggable, or a traditional plush teddy bear. Huggable in its robotic from improved patient outcomes compared with the other two options.

The study was primarily designed to demonstrate feasibility of integrating Huggable into the interventions. However, results indicated that playing with Huggable helped children experience more positive emotions overall. They were likely to get out of bed and move around more, and enjoyed connecting with the robot by asking it questions and inviting it to come back later to see their families. Researchers hypothesise that this could lead to improved recovery rates.

Researchers emphasise that Huggable is designed only to assist health care professionals, not replace them. “It's a companion,” said Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of media arts and sciences and founding director of the Personal Robots. “Our group designs technologies with the mindset that they're teammates. We don't just look at the child-robot interaction.”



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