MEDi robot to comfort patients in Stollery Children's Hospital

Edmonton's Stollery Children's hospital plans to add a walking, talking MEDi robot to its workforce to help ease pain and anxiety for kids facing medical procedures or hospital stays.
The MEDi robot can help young patients cope with fear and anxiety during a hospital stay. (Alberta Health Services)

Edmonton's Stollery Children's Hospital plans to add a walking, talking MEDi robot to its workforce, to help ease pain and anxiety for kids facing medical procedures or hospital stays.

A MEDi robot (Medicine and Engineering Designing Intelligence) named Chip has been in use at the Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge since January 2016, and the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary has had one since 2015.

Since the robot was introduced to the pediatric department, it has helped teach children on how to cope with needles, or to just relax, said Maria Malcolm, the child-life specialist at the Chinook Regional Hospital.

"They just connect with him in a way they don't connect with the adults around them," said Malcolm.

"That four- to 10-year-old age group is especially engaged by Chip. When he explains to them what to do, they tend to listen and believe him."

The $20,000 robot is manufactured by Softbank robotics based in Paris. It has speech recognition in 20 different languages, and according to a video on the company's website can move its fingers arms and legs fluidly, while bending, stretching and sliding.

Rxrobots of Calgary developed the software for the MEDi robot, and has sold it to hospital pediatric departments in Canada and the United States.

Dr. Tanya Beran, founder and president of Rxrobots, created the program for the robot to work with children as a distraction and coping strategy. Beran is conducting ongoing research into children's interactions with robots at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine.
Dr. Tanya Beran, founder and president of Rxrobots, says the MEDi robot can be used to help ease anxiety and for rehabilitation services. (Rxrobots)

"When MEDi holds up a duck, and says can you help me blow the dust off the duck, then the kids are thinking they're just helping the robot," Beran said. "When, in fact, the reason we want them to blow is to relax their muscles, to slow down their breathing, and to help them focus on something positive and playful, taking their mind off of the scary medical procedure that's about to take place."

It can't think

While the robot can't "think, reason or plan," Beran said it can be programmed to appear as though it has artificial intelligence.

One key to instantly connecting with children is to make interactions with the MEDi appear spontaneous, said Beran.

"We enter the child's name to the tablet that operates the robot, and we press play as soon as the child sees the robot. Then he will greet the child and call them by name, so it looks like the robot knows who they are."

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said technology is one area with exciting possibilities for the health-care system. Robotics have been used in other health-care applications over the past few years, including the "da Vinci" surgical robot at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women in Edmonton.

The MEDi, however, is the first human-interactive robot to be used in Alberta hospitals.

"It's never going to replace having people take care of you," Hoffman said. "But I think if it can supplement it, that's a good opportunity for us to move the health-care system forward."

Beran said the MEDi robot was originally intended to be used solely for children's pain management, but has expanded its use to include physical rehabilitation, comfort between procedures and even special events and fundraising.

Alberta Health Services said the MEDi robot for the Stollery Children's hospital has been ordered, but it's not known when the robot will appear on the wards.