Social Robots Help Children Cope with Hospital Experiences

Interacting with a robotic teddy bear can boost young patients’ positive emotions, engagement and activity level.

‘Social robots’ used in support sessions held in hospital paediatric units can lead to more positive emotions in sick children, a study has demonstrated.

Many paediatric units have specialists who work to make a child’s hospital experience as positive as possible.

This involves play, preparation, education, and behavioural distraction for both routine medical care, as well as before, during, and after difficult procedures. The workers attempt to normalise the environment through activities such as arts and crafts, games and celebrations, and partake in therapeutic medical play.

In the study, researchers from the MIT Media Lab, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Northeastern University, deployed a robotic teddy bear named ‘Huggable’, across several paediatric units at Boston Children’s Hospital. More than 50 hospitalised children aged three to 10 were randomly split into three groups that involved Huggable, a tablet-based virtual Huggable, or a traditional plush teddy bear. In general, Huggable improved various patient outcomes over those other two options.

The study primarily demonstrated the feasibility of integrating Huggable into such interventions. But results also indicated that children playing with Huggable experienced more positive emotions overall. They also got out of bed and moved around more, and emotionally connected with the robot, according to the researchers, asking it personal questions and inviting it to come back later to meet their families.

“Such improved emotional, physical, and verbal outcomes are all positive factors that could contribute to better and faster recovery in hospitalised children,” the researchers said.

Although it is a small study, it is the first to explore social robotics in a real-world inpatient paediatric setting with ill children, the researchers believe. Other studies have been conducted in labs, have studied very few children, or were conducted in public settings without any patient identification.

But the researchers stress that Huggable is designed only to assist health care specialists.

“It’s a companion,” said study co-author Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of media arts and sciences and founding director of the Personal Robots group. “Our group designs technologies with the mindset that they’re teammates. We don’t just look at the child-robot interaction. It’s about helping specialists and parents, because we want technology to support everyone who’s invested in the quality care of a child.”

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Fellow author Deirdre Logan, a paediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said: “Child life staff provide a lot of human interaction to help normalise the hospital experience, but they can’t be with every kid, all the time. Social robots create a more consistent presence throughout the day.

“There may also be kids who don’t always want to talk to people, and respond better to having a robotic stuffed animal with them. It’s exciting knowing what types of support we can provide kids who may feel isolated or scared about what they’re going through.”

First prototyped in 2006, Huggable is a plush teddy bear with a screen depicting animated eyes. While the eventual goal is to make the robot fully autonomous, it is currently operated remotely by a specialist in the hall outside a child’s room.

Through custom software, a specialist can control the robot’s facial expressions and body actions, and direct its gaze. The specialists could also talk through a speaker – with their voice automatically shifted to a higher pitch to sound more childlike – and monitor the participants via a camera feed. The tablet-based avatar of the bear had identical gestures and was also remotely operated.



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