Robotic buddies ease fears at Calgary children's hospital
Published Saturday, February 21, 2015 9:57PM EST
Sometimes, a hospital can be a frightening place for a child. Now, patients at the Alberta Children's Hospital have four new robotic friends to make their treatment time a little easier, whether they’re undergoing a simple vaccination or something as serious as cancer treatment.
The two-foot-tall, knee-high-sized robots are called MEDis, for Medical and Engineering Designing Intelligence. They were designed in France and developed in Calgary, where they've been undergoing testing at the hospital for the last three years.
The robots are meant to distract and amuse apprehensive kids, providing them with a little entertainment, some small talk and perhaps a dance or two. The robots can mimic many of the things a child can do: they can walk and dance, play games, make eye contact and even give kids a high-five.
Tanya Beran, a professor of Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary, who helped program the robots, says she and her team plan to further enhance the robots' technology to make they even more personal.
"The robot has the capabilities of facial recognition, so it could even greet the child by name," she says.
What's more, the MEDis can also improve the dynamic between child and parent. Beran says parents are often nervous for their children in hospital -- and when kids pick up on their parents' fear, they become more nervous in turn. The robots can offer comforting words to help parents and children ease their fears together.
Nine-year-old Aidan Sousa is already a fan of the robots. He goes to the hospital every two weeks for shots for his severe asthma and says he could have used a friend like MEDi when he first started coming in.
"It was scary when I first started. I got mad at my mom for making me do it. It hurt really badly," he remembers.
Sousa says he already feels a bond with the robot.
"Holding his hand, walking with him is just a really cool experience," he says.
Aidan's mother, Sheila Sousa, says she likes the MEDis too, and can see how they would be a real comfort to children.
"Knowing that there is something out there that eases the stress, the anxiety, and sometimes traumatic experiences, is great," she says.
There's even research to back up the usefulness of the MEDis. A study at the hospital involving 57 children between the ages of four and nine found the robots helped ease fears when children came in for flu shots. Beran says among those kids who interacted with the robot, the hospital reduced children's pain and anxiety by 50 per cent.
"The parents seemed to also smile significantly longer so they seemed to enjoy the experience more," she adds.
The hospital now has four robots, which cost $15,000 each and were funded by donations to the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.
But for families of the young patients who will use the robots, what they provide is priceless.
With files from CTV Alberta Bureau Chief Janet Dirks