Using AI-Enhanced Social Robots to Improve Children's Healthcare Experiences

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Computing Science


Children experience pain and distress in clinical settings every day, and the negative consequences of unaddressed pain can be both short-term (e.g. fear, distress, inability to perform procedures) and long-term (e.g. needle phobia, anxiety). In a series of small, innovative studies by project team members, a Nao humanoid robot has been used to deliver cognitive-behavioural therapy-based interventions during needle-based procedures. The results of these early studies have been positive, showing high acceptance among the target population as well as promising initial clinical results. However, these studies were all hindered by a critical technical limitation: in all cases, the robot was remotely operated and employed purely scripted behaviour with limited AI support, diminishing the flexibility and robustness of its behaviour as well as its potential to offer personalised, adaptive procedural support to children. In this project, we aim to address this limitation by developing and evaluating a clinically relevant and responsive AI-enhanced social robot. We believe that interaction with a robust, adaptive, socially intelligent robot can effectively distract children during painful clinical procedures, thereby reducing pain and distress.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

The research proposal has the potential to benefit all stakeholders involved in delivering potentially painful interventions in a children's clinical setting, including:
1. Children undergoing these procedures
2. Parents and caregivers of those children
3. Healthcare providers who carry out such procedures
4. Policymakers and clinical decision makers who determine standards of care

In addition, the software and guidelines developed during the project represent an opportunity for impact on an additional set of beneficiaries: namely, those who develop and deploy social robots that are designed to interact with children.

How will they benefit from this research?

Achieving the project objectives will deliver numerous practical benefits to all stakeholders involved in the target clinical setting. At one level, as the research plan itself involves children, parents, and healthcare providers throughout the process, ensuring that they are fully consulted throughout every stage and engaged in the development of the robot software and the results of the study. Also, the new, flexible, robust robot intervention has the clear potential to benefit all of the above stakeholders: children will experience less pain and distress in clinical settings; their parents and carers will experience less distress and anxiety as well; while the healthcare providers will find it easier and less stressful to carry out procedures in the short term, and will also not need to deal with longer-term consequences such as needle phobia. Clinical decision makers who determine standards of care in emergency departments will also benefit from the addition of a novel, engaging, clinically proven method of reducing pain and distress in the emergency department and other clinical settings.

Developers of similar social robots will also directly benefit from the work done on this project: not only will they be able to use the publicly released software components, but also -- and perhaps more importantly --- they will have access to a comprehensive, evidence-based set of recommendations and guidelines on how to ethically and responsibly integrate a user-centric approach into their AI and robotics projects.

What will be done to ensure they have the opportunity to benefit?

Our primary channel for delivering impact is through Solutions for Kids in Pain (SKIP), a federally-funded knowledge mobilization network in Canada that seeks to bridge the gap between current treatment practices and available evidence-based solutions for children's pain in Canadian health institutions. Through an in-kind contribution, SKIP will permit us to:
- Disseminate and share information about the research across the SKIP network including in the newsletter, website, and social media.
- Take advantage of knowledge translation activities and opportunities such as media pitches, partner blog posts, and featured articles.
- Have access to 48 Canadian health institutions, including all children's hospitals in Canada, to support data collection and connections with patient, parent, and health professional groups, as well as access to regional knowledge brokers at sites across Canada.


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