How Robots Can Help Caregivers

Professor Bruce MacDonald of the University of Auckland in New Zealand leads a team working to create a corps of medical robots that will be able to help monitor and assist elders in need.


We are only two months into 2012 and it's clear that the Quantified Self movement is increasingly gaining traction. More devices are emerging to help people quantify everything from anxiety to weight and blood glucose to sleep patterns. But what about people who cannot use the devices or are not ambulatory themselves?

A team led by Professor Bruce MacDonald at the University of Auckland in New Zealand has been working to create a corps of medical robots --  Healthbots -- to help these people. Medgadget had the opportunity to interview Professor MacDonald about the Healthbots, what they do, and when we can expect to see them available to help those in need.

Please describe your implementation goal for the Healthbots.

Our goal is to develop practical software technology for personal mobile robots, working together with our partners in South Korea who make the robot devices, the older care organization, The Selwyn Foundation, in New Zealand and several New Zealand companies who have interests in helping older people. The work involves important research: for example, how to make robots acceptable to older people, how to design and develop robot software that can easily be deployed and used in practice, and how to place robots in a care system that really helps and empowers older people and also care staff. We have evaluated these robots over the last four years, including in three trials. In the next few years we hope to see robots starting to be used by older people; perhaps initially for entertainment this year or next year.

By 2020, we would like to see robotic assistants in many older peoples' homes and apartments in retirement villages and in the community, around the world, helping people by doing simple tasks and providing, empowering, and enriching interactions including connections to their friends, family, and caretakers who are in other places. We think there are a number of roles for robots in older care, including a robot as a care assistant that does simple tasks to help staff, and a companion robot that provides entertainment, interactions, and connections to friends and family using its touch screen and its connection to the Internet. For all this we need a very well designed and simple interface that many people can use. In our trials, people have told us that they would like Internet technology delivered via the robot, because it is easier to use than a computer. Our goal is to put robots all around the world and the New Zealand government funding that supports our work is aimed at the export market for New Zealand companies.

What are the main obstacles that need to be overcome between now and the implementation goal?

We need to have robots interacting with a lot of people, and then improve what the robots do according to peoples' feedback. We need to find ways to get robots in peoples' homes on a wide scale, across our communities; that includes support for helping people use the robots. Currently there is little business infrastructure for selling and supporting robots across large markets around the world, and people are not used to having robots around.  We have shown that people will accept robots in older care, and that the robots can work in an elderly care environment. We are hoping our current studies will verify that robots improve the life experience of older people and their care staff. The next step is to deploy robots in many places. Also, we need to narrow the focus to some simple initial applications for the robots; so far we have many things that the robots can do.

What types of conditions in people are the Healthbots most suited to helping? For example, hypertension/CVD, diabetes, Alzheimer's, etc?

I think robots can help people with all kinds of conditions, by helping them manage the condition, and by enriching peoples' lives with more interesting activities and interactions when the condition imposes limitations on what people can do by themselves. The medication management system on the robots is also important. Many older people are taking several medications several times a day and it can be a challenge to remember all the medications, the times they should be taken, and any limitations about each medications (e.g. with or without food or water). Some medications should be taken only if the older person has certain symptoms at the time. The robot system can remind people to take medications at the right time, and in the right way, and it can ask them about their symptoms and then remind them what to take as a result. Also, the doctor seems to like receiving a weekly summary on a Web page of the medications taken, the vitals signs taken every time the medications are taken (e.g. blood pressure and heart rate), and some answer to a few symptom questions that the doctor can tell the robot to ask. So we think this can help people with any conditions that are managed by medications, and that includes many conditions, including hypertension/CVD (something we are working on with Pulsecor, whose device measures arterial stiffness as well as blood pressure), diabetes (the robot can also collect blood glucose results), and respiratory problems that require inhaler use (something we are working on with Nexus6, which makes devices to monitor inhaler use). We also think that the robot can help people with Alzheimer's, however we are still evaluating how these people interact with robots like ours.

For people with mild cognitive problems we think the robot will be useful for reminding them about their daily activities. And maybe the robot will help calm people with more severe dementia. We also think that our robots will help people who are socially isolated and lonely, because it will give them something to interact with, and also will enable them to communicate through the Internet with their friends and family. We provided a simple Skype interface on our robot and that has been very popular; people often find Skype a little tricky to use and the robot simplifies that. We are also developing ways for monitoring peoples' daily movements, using wearable accelerometers, and we plan to use the robot to interact with people using the information collected.

Are there any other settings or populations that the Healthbots may be useful for (e.g. inpatients, children, etc.)?

Yes, we think robots can help children who have autism and other conditions and we think that robots can help all kinds of people who have long-term conditions, and people who are socially isolated for any reason. There is some research to show that children with autism can react quite positively to robots, and robots may have the potential to teach children social skills by providing a way for them to practice their skills with the robot. We think that robots can help people with disabilities, for example helping to remind people about their daily activities if they have cognitive problems and helping people to manage their medications if they take a lot of medication. The robot can also help link people with their doctors and caretakers, by managing all their health information, which is something we are working on with Lifetime Health Diary.

This post also appears on medGadget, an Atlantic partner site.