Robin interacting with a young patient

Social robot boosts positive outlook for hospitalised children

Image credit: UCLA Health

A new study has found that a visit from a human-controlled robot encourages a positive outlook and improves medical interactions for hospitalised children.

Conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the study involved a social companion robot called Robin, who can move, talk and play with others while being remotely controlled by humans.

As part of the research, specialists from UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital’s Chase Child Life Program conducted hour-long video visits with young patients using Robin, comparing it with other interactions using a standard tablet, from October 2020 to April 2021.

At the conclusion of the study period, children and their parents were interviewed about their experiences and child life specialists provided feedback in a focus group. The researchers then used a transcript of the discussion to identify recurrent and salient themes.

The researchers found that 90 per cent of parents who had a visit with Robin said they were “extremely likely” to request another visit, compared to 60 per cent of parents whose children interacted with the tablet.

Children reported a 29 per cent increase in positive affect – described as the tendency to experience the world positively, including emotions, interactions with others and with life’s challenges – after a visit with Robin and a 33 per cent decrease in negative affect. Children who had a tablet visit reported a 43 per cent decrease in positive affect and a 33 per cent decrease in negative affect.

Parents whose children had a visit from Robin told the researchers their children had no change in positive affect and a 75 per cent decrease in negative affect. Parents whose children had a tablet visit reported their children had a 16 per cent increase in positive affect and no change in negative affect.

Child life specialists who oversaw visits with Robin reported benefits that included a greater display of intimacy and interactivity during play, increased control over their hospital experience and the formation of a new, trusting friendship.

“Our team has shown that a social companion robot can go beyond video chats on a tablet to give us a more imaginative and profound way to make the hospital less stressful,” said Justin Wagner, a paediatric surgeon at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. “As the pandemic continues, our patients are still feeling anxious and vulnerable in a variety of ways, so it’s critical that we be as creative as possible to make their experiences easier when they need our help. We saw the positive effect on children, their families and healthcare workers”.

The analysis also suggests benefits to staff, including an increased sense of intimacy with and focus on the patient, increased staff engagement in social care and relative ease in maintaining infection control practices.

In the study, child life specialists also disclosed the challenges of limited time for patient encounters and a learning curve for operating Robin.

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