Exploring the potential and challenges of social robots in healthcare

Social robots in Healthcare by PAL Robotics

In a world where technological advancement is reshaping industry, healthcare stands at the forefront of transformation, as the integration of social robots in healthcare has the potential to enhance patient care and support the overburdened healthcare system. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Séverin Lemaignan and Dr. Raquel Ros, both experts in social robotics, who shared valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities presented by social robots in healthcare.

Why robots for healthcare?

Robots are increasingly being integrated into healthcare settings to assist and support patients in various ways. Their capabilities help contribute to improved patient care and outcomes. Here are several ways in which robots help patients in healthcare. Examples include: rehabilitation by guiding patients through exercises, medication delivery to patient rooms, patient monitoring by collecting patient data such as temperature and heart rate, companionship especially for older patients, therapeutic activities such as cognitive games, and interactive learning to provide patients with educational content.

Regarding the background of robotics for healthcare, Dr. Raquel Ros emphasised the pressing challenge of staffing in the healthcare system. She stated, “One of the challenges that we have today is that we don’t have enough medical staff, and we have to do something to support the healthcare system as otherwise we’re going to have many more issues in the future.”

Another significant challenge highlighted by Dr. Raquel Ros is the lack of automation in the healthcare industry compared to other sectors. “At this time there is very little automation done in healthcare compared to other industries.” The slower implementation of robotic technology in healthcare is primarily attributed to strict safety, security, and ethical checkpoints. Dr. Raquel Ros pointed out, “It is not so easy to implement because you have to do safety, security, and ethical checkpoints, while in other areas we’re moving very fast.” She also added that, “if we really want to support the healthcare system in an efficient way, we have to first start relying on a type of automation that is invisible to the end-user.”

User engagement and the challenge of unstructured conversations: example from the EU SPRING project

During our discussion about social robots’ acceptance among patients, Dr. Séverin Lemaignan highlighted the EU project SPRING (Socially Pertinent Robots in Gerontological Healthcare) with PAL Robotics’ ARI robot operating in a Paris hospital, and the high level of interest among older individuals invited to interact with the robot. He stated, “In the SPRING project the idea was to get patients and staff to interact with the robot, the initial acceptance, especially in older people, is very good overall. For those who said: ‘yes, I want to interact with the robot’, they have a very positive idea about the robot.”

However, Séverin also acknowledged that unstructured conversations have posed a challenge. “When users in the hospital start interacting with the robot, they instantly want to chat, and if it’s an unstructured chat there is still a lot of work needed in natural language processing before the chat abilities of robots are more ready for unstructured conversations.”

The SPRING project consortium of 7 universities and industrial partners is working on the development of socially assistive robots, with a focus on multi-person interactions and open and extensive dialogue including unstructured conversations. PAL Robotics is adapting ARI robots as well as integrating the software developed by project partners for the robot to participate in different user cases in a hospital.

Incorporating social robots in patients’ homes and ethics: experience from the NHoA project

Dr. Séverin Lemaignan and Dr. Raquel Ros also talked about the NHoA collaborative project. In this project, the social robot ARI is used in the homes of older people to support them in their daily lives and improve their well-being. Incorporating social robots in homes also raises ethical concerns related to privacy and Dr. Raquel Ros highlighted the importance of user empowerment in defining the robot’s roles and tasks. “We have to make sure that each user can decide what a robot is supposed to be doing, what it’s supposed to be processing, and what it’s supposed to be externalising to the world.”

Dr. Séverin Lemaignan also mentioned that, “It is really interesting from our perspective as a company developing robots that – we can design a robot to be one thing or the other. But it’s really in the hands of the user what they are going to end up doing with the robot. We’ve seen so many great examples of people creating their own interactions, and their own relationship with our robots.”

The objective of the NHoA project is the co-design of a socially intelligent assistive robot for the home that is robust, adaptable, and fosters user acceptance. This system aids in everyday life (providing assistance, entertaining), and helping to remotely monitor the person’s health status as well as encouraging them to remain socially active.

User acceptance and robot tasks in user’ homes: example from the EU SHAPES project

Another key point regarding user acceptance of robots at home is the importance of what the robot does when it is not active in somebody’s home, as Dr. Séverin Lemaignan stated – “In the SHAPES project, the ARI robot was at an older person’s home and was programmed to have a set of tasks: a reminder of medication, appointments, activities planned etc, but if you look at it, take it all together, the robot was actually active only for some of the day. What does a robot do the rest of the time?” He also added, “It’s very interesting. What other examples do we have? We have pets. Pets are active with us, maybe an hour a day. The rest of the time, they live their own lives… and we seem to be quite happy with that. What would be the robot equivalent ?”

The SHAPES project aims to create an environment that supports the deployment of digital solutions to support healthy and independent living for older individuals. In the project, PAL Robotics’ social robot ARI is adapted to help users in their homes and in care homes with tasks such as reminders and mobility exercises.

The future of robotics in healthcare

Discussing paths for the real-world deployment of service robots on a larger scale in the healthcare sector, Dr. Séverin Lemaignan suggests a route starting from functional robots, focused on practical needs like internal logistics (for instance, carrying supplies in the hospital), moving to more interactive roles like welcoming and guiding visitors, to fully social roles, like providing occupational or emotional support to patients. He remarked, “It’s fair to think that the first robots that are going to be widely deployed in hospitals are robots that will be basically invisible to the patients, to the families, and will be functional robots that are there to support the day-to-day running of the hospital, by carrying things around. From there on, once these robots are recognised as being useful, the hospital staff themselves may request and lead the deployment on a larger scale of assistive robots into more social roles, interacting with patients and families.”

Underlining this vision, Dr. Raquel Ros added that different types of robots serve different roles. Some robots are primarily functional, delivering medications or equipment. She stated, “There are very different types of robots that might have an impact on healthcare. And some of these robots are not going to be the robot nurse, but the logistics robots – robots that brings back and forth medications, equipment.”

We further discussed the future of robotics in healthcare, envisioning robots with social capabilities assisting and guiding patients. While acknowledging existing challenges, Raquel felt hopeful about the future potential, saying, “I believe that we will continue to further develop the technology in the coming years, that also liberates us from the concern around ethical issues of having robots taking care of patients, which I agree is a human task and not a robot task. Having a robot that has social capabilities to navigate around people, so that the robot is guiding people somewhere, to make sure that the person is following- these types of capabilities as well as many others are very useful.”

We would like to thank Dr. Séverin Lemaignan and Dr. Raquel Ros for taking the time to talk with us. Learn more about Séverin and Raquel, and if you have any questions for them or the team at PAL Robotics don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. Visit our website to find out more about our social robots, including the humanoid social robot ARI. For more articles and interviews, check out our blog on robotics and technology.

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