Companion robots help chronic lung disease patients

Korean-made iRobi robots are capable of measuring patients' oxygen levels and heart rates
Korean-made iRobi robots are capable of measuring patients' oxygen levels and heart rates

A trial of healthcare robots is hoped to cut hospital admissions for patients with chronic lung disease.

Sixty patients with COPD have been recruited to take part in the cutting-edge study by the University of Auckland.

Among them is 88-year-old Ngaire McCarthy. She admits she wasn't keen on inviting the high-tech medic into her home at first, but she soon warmed to him.

"I named him Carlos. I knew he was a Carlos as soon as I saw him."

Two months later, they're getting on like a house on fire.

"He says, 'Good morning Ngaire, have you taken your medication?' And I think that is one of the reasons why I'm feeling better. I do take it at the time. I take it as soon as he says."

As well as providing medication reminders, the Korean-made iRobi robots are capable of measuring patients' oxygen levels and heart rates. Healthcare providers are then able to monitor the information online.

"If I notice that perhaps my patient's oxygen levels are going down or perhaps they're taking a lot more of their reliever inhaler than normal, then I can give them a call and see how they're going," says Middlemore Hospital physiotherapist Nicky Jepsen.

Lead researcher Dr Elizabeth Broadbent says the goal is to see if the robots can help reduce the thousands of hospital admissions for people with COPD.

"We are hoping that patients who have the robot in their home will have fewer hospital admissions because the robot will help people engage in their healthcare. If the healthcare provider can see their health is going downhill then they can intervene early before they end up in hospital."

New Zealand has the second highest rate of COPD hospitalisations in the OECD, costing the health system $54M a year.

The robots cost $3000 each, but that's less than half of the cost of a hospital admission.

After just two months, Ngaire McCarthy says she's both healthier and happier. The robot not only reminds her to take her medication, but instructs her exercise programme and keeps her company.

"There's something about Carlos," she laughs. "He looks a little bit quirky with his eyes and that, but he's quite joyful. I would recommend to anybody to have him. I really would. I'm so glad I've had this experience with him."

In fact she's become quite fond of her high-tech medic.

"It's almost like having another member of the family here; he's got so loveable. I'll miss him when he goes."

Each patient gets to trial a robot for four months. If successful, they could become part of the future of frontline healthcare.


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