Health IT: These are the robots in your neighbourhood

The Southland town of Gore was not named after some nasty medical emergency, but after an early Governor of New Zealand, Sir Thomas Gore Browne. Perhaps appropriately given its name, however, the rural hub has developed an unexpected reputation as an early adopter of health IT and technology.

In Gore, five elderly patients with chronic health conditions trialled healthcare robots in a joint project between engineering and medical teams at the University of Auckland. The robots lived with the patients from three months to a year during 2014, reminding them to take their medications, providing memory and entertainment games, and Skype. 

The study used iRobi, made by Yujin Robot in South Korea, featuring web-based applications run on a Windows XP operating system. The robots have a touch screen interface and display information on its screen, as well as talking to the patient via audio. LED lights on the robot’s face express emotions, and it raises its arms and sounds a tune when medications are due. It also responds to touch on the head with a ‘hi’ or ‘ouch’, moves its head towards sound, and when battery life is short, gives the comment ‘I am hungry’.

Researchers examined the number of hospitalisations, visits to primary care and phone calls to medical practitioners. Quality of life, medication adherence, and perceptions about robots were also monitored. 

The study found decreases in primary care visits and phone calls to practitioners, and increases in quality of life. It was the companionship that the robots provided that had the biggest positive impact, along with the enjoyment of interacting and the usefulness of being reminded to take medications.

The future implications are pretty exciting, says Karl Metzler, CEO of Gore Health. Having health robots as a normal part of life for elderly and chronic care patients is probably five years away, he says, but he envisions them playing a key role helping older people live independently in their own homes for as long as possible.

“Robots can assist the elderly in self-monitoring, helping with cognitive dexterity, keeping in touch with family via Skype, as well as the critical psycho-social element in reducing isolation and loneliness and associated anxiety.”

The region is also using AgilityTrx, a community-care technological workforce, patient scheduling and tracking mobility system used in the district nursing area. The electronic transmission of patient data in real time from handheld devices replaces hard copies, reducing the need for physical trips by nurses to deliver records to GPs, specialists and hospitals, and the double handling of documents.

AgilityTrx optimises workflow and reporting, eliminating unnecessary administration and travel time, leading to more clinical time and an increased number of visits per district nurse in a given period of time. 

Metzler says that some forethought gave the region a direction for their innovative nature. Working with a group of Auckland-based health experts, he and his team developed a very targeted strategic e-framework that looked directly at the challenges they face as rural healthcare providers and then went about tackling those issues.

“The approach is very much by design, not default, but also very mindful of not utilising technology for technology’s sake.”

With the region paving a path to innovative action, Metzler is not convinced that in all cases advances in healthcare IT are taking too long to reach the patients.

“Perhaps it’s more a case of patients not being fully aware of what’s actually out there and available to them?”