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Child-friendly robots help kids cope with pain

Alberta Children’s Hospital first to access MEDi technology
February 20, 2015
Nine-year-old Aidan Sousa finds his hospital friend MEDi a reassuring presence during his frequent visits to the Alberta Children's Hospital.

Nine-year-old Aidan Sousa finds his hospital friend MEDi a reassuring presence during his frequent visits to the Alberta Children's Hospital.

Tanya Beran, left, with MEDi the robot and Alberta Children's Hospital patient Aidan Sousa.

Tanya Beran with MEDi the robot and Alberta Children's Hospital patient Aidan Sousa.

Four childlike robots are being used to comfort young patients during stressful medical procedures at Alberta Children’s Hospital.

The two-foot-tall robots, named MEDi (Medicine and Engineering Designing Intelligence), are programmed to mimic the actions of a child and to calm apprehensive patients with small talk and high-fives during procedures such as vaccinations and blood tests.

In a recent study conducted by Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary, 57 children between the ages of four and nine interacted with MEDi while receiving their seasonal influenza vaccination. The study showed children who interacted with the robots reported 50 per cent less pain compared to youngsters who received their vaccination with little or no distraction.

Distracting robots decrease pain

“These results show the potential and benefits for using robotics to help manage a child’s pain while having a medical procedure done,” says Tanya Beran, professor of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

“Robots can be used during blood tests and IV starts and other uncomfortable procedures, such as stitches or fracture sets. It can even be used for procedures that aren’t painful but cause distress for children, such as X-rays. The opportunities are endless,” says Beran, who programmed the robots.

Beran says the robots also give instructions on how to cope with and improve the dynamic between child and parent. “Parents know their child is nervous, which makes them nervous. MEDi gives instructions that helps join parent and child together in a common action,” she says.

“Hospitals — even bright and friendly hospitals like this one — can put children on edge, especially if they are here for a procedure that might involve some discomfort,” says Margaret Fullerton, senior operating officer with Alberta Children’s Hospital.

Alberta Children's Hospital the first to access the technology

“We’ve been testing the MEDi robots here for almost three years and it has become quite clear that this technology significantly improves the health-care experience for our young patients and their parents and caregivers. The Alberta Children’s Hospital is fortunate to have access to the first robots in Canada specifically programmed to help children manage painful or stressful medical procedures. It’s a useful — and very cool — technology.”

Sheila Sousa says the MEDi robots have been a source of comfort for her nine-year-old son Aidan, who visits Alberta Children’s Hospital every two weeks for injections to manage his severe asthma.

“The procedure wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable with MEDi in the room,” Sousa says. “Not only did it calm him down, but it helped me knowing Aidan was preoccupied and interested in something other than his treatment. It made the entire experience so much easier.”

“All Aidan could talk about after his injection was the robot.”

Child preoccupied and more relaxed during treatment 

The four robots were funded by community donations to the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation for use throughout the hospital, including the Vi Riddell Children’s Pain and Rehabilitation Centre.

“We’re so grateful to our generous donors for supporting such innovative technology,” says Saifa Koonar, president and CEO of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. “Any time pain and distress can be reduced for children, it’s a very good thing.”

Developers plan to further enhance the technology by personalizing the interactions through the use of facial recognition software. MEDi would then be able to greet patients by name and customize conversations according to the patient’s history.

Business potential of RxRobots

Professor Beran worked with the entrepreneurial development team at Innovate Calgary to develop a business model for her company, RxRobots, and attract international support through extensive pitch coaching. She has received acclaim at the W21C Innovation Academy and was invited to present in Geneva at World Innovation Day for Innovation in Health, where she won third prize. 

Innovate Calgary’s intellectual property management team managed the transfer of the technology for MEDi to RxRobots through its new Express Assignment Agreement. 

“We recently attended CES 2015 where RxRobots made it into the Business Analyst top ten,” says Mark Williams, Innovate Calgary entrepreneur-in-residence, and RxRobots president and CEO. “We have big plans for this company.  We are currently working to bring MEDi to the United States but it won’t stop there, MEDi speaks 20 languages and can be programmed to work for specific cultures.”