This Robot Helps Kids Relax at the Doctor’s Office
Doctors have used everything from cartoons to bubbles to help distract kids during procedures; Dr. Tanya Beran, founder of RXRobots, wants to add the MEDi robot to the mix.
By S.C. Stuart
Making kids feel comfortable at the doctor’s office is a delicate dance-one that Dr. Tanya Beran believes could be enhanced with small, sympathetic robots that coach young patients through procedures and appointments.
Dr. Beran-Professor of Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary’s School of Medicine-runs a medtech startup, RXRobots. In 2014, she created a software program called MEDi to make Softbank’s NAO humanoid robots medically and socially appropriate to help children manage pain during medical procedures. It’s now in over 20 hospitals across the world, and counting.
We spoke to Dr. Beran recently to find out more. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation.
PCMag: Dr. Beran, it’s clear from the video (below) that having MEDI hang out in a hospital setting helps enormously. How did you first discover the healing properties of our silicon cousins?
Dr. Tanya Beran: Back in 2009, at the Telus World of Science, I led a research team that built a robot arm, decorated with craft materials. It was programmed to stack blocks and then “accidentally” drop the last block. This was part of an experiment to see how children responded to robots. We showed that children would consistently “help” the robot “learn” how to stack the blocks properly. Through our research, we proved that the majority of children perceive that a robot has the ability to think, feel, and act in ways that clearly it couldn’t.
When I interviewed Dr. Selma Sabanovic, she discussed different cultural responses to robots. For example, in Japan, the concept of ‘animism,’ where users feel the robot is ‘alive’ in some sense.
That’s something we addressed in a [2011 paper, which] examined whether children attribute human qualities of cognition, affect, and behavior to a robot by testing 198 children ages 5 to 16 with a robotic unit. That’s why MEDi is so effective. Children perceive that the robot has cognition and empathy.
So through this research, you knew robots could work in a pediatric setting?
Yes. Drawing on my background as a psychologist, we programmed MEDi with cognitive-behavioral strategies to coach children through pain, giving them a sense of mastery. MEDi also distracts them with interactive games, conversation, and music. We tested MEDi thoroughly in a variety of settings and then came up with the optimum software package of behaviors it would need.
How many procedures is MEDi programmed to ‘understand’ today?
MEDi is programmed with specific behaviors to coach children in all kinds of medical procedures: Blood Test, Cast Removal, EEG, IV Start, Vaccination, Induction, and more.
MEDi was awarded Most Innovative Start-Up at California’s Pediatrics 2040 in 2016. Did you get any pushback from clinicians at the prospect of a robot on their patch?
My impression has been that pediatricians welcome something that makes their jobs easier. Administering medical treatment to children is hard, especially very young children, and MEDi has been so useful at distracting, soothing, and helping the patient. Many pediatricians have admitted they’re grateful for its presence because they know they may get an examination done more quickly.
I’m not a parent, but if I was, I’m sure I’d be relieved if a MEDi robot was there to halt a child’s screams.
We’ve definitely heard that feedback. Parents often dread their child’s visit to the hospital, especially if it’s a long, drawn-out, illness.
Tell us more about the software platform. Do you lease it or do hospitals buy the unit outright and modify your software themselves?
How much does each unit cost? And how many hospitals are now using MEDi?
MEDi robot and software platform costs a total of $14,000 and 20 different hospitals in the US, Canada, UK, and Australia are using the system we’ve developed.
Is RXRobots a private company? Who are your main investors?
I’m the sole proprietor. I’ve taken no outside investment for the company and remain in business through generating income from sales alone.
I was particularly taken by MEDi’s empathy feedback loops such as giving a heads up on the antiseptic wipe approach and how it feels: ‘It’s wet, isn’t it? Like a puppy licking your arm,’ to much nodding and smiling from the once-terrified patient.
MEDi is effective because the children think the robot is playing with them. While, at the same time, the robot is delivering research-supported, evidence-based tried-and-true support strategies.
MEDi has been proven to be 50 percent more effective than other distraction strategies; that’s huge.
Agreed. Previous care strategies including blowing bubbles, watching cartoons, but these had limited effects of mitigating children’s distress at the oncoming needle. In our research trials, MEDi was shown to be 50 percent more effective than standard care because it interacts with the children, bonds immediately, shows empathy, explains what’s going to happen, and puts them instantly at ease.
Finally, I know from personal experience that painful hospital procedures make one apprehensive about check-ups. Do you hope that MEDi will help a generation of children grow up to be more comfortable around health providers?
Definitely. We know that kids who have better experiences within the healthcare system more likely to go for routine screenings, and seek medical attention as adults. This willingness to engage in preventive medicine will save lives and reduce costs within the system. Our little robot helps build rapport and a trusting relationship with the child, and we’re continuing to do research on how MEDi can change health outcomes for the better in the future.
Dr. Beran will be presenting her research at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute Conference in Banff, Alberta, on Dec 13.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com on December 9, 2019.