Is that a Dalek in the surgery, Dr Ropata?
Despite being tested in-market since the start of the year, robots have yet to invade the GP’s surgery.
But earlier this year Gore Health – which runs a hospital and several other health services in the South Island – became the first in New Zealand to start trialing "healthbots."
Healthbots can undertake simple medical tasks such as monitoring blood pressure and heart rate, and can remind users to take medicine.
After initial fears people would be freaked out by the machines, a recent survey shows robots with human faces are winners.
Researchers say while patients and staff have responded well, getting technical support for the robots has been an issue.
Gore Health chief executive Karl Metzler says so far only one patient has refused a robot because she was “fearful of the technology”.
But Mr Metzler says the trial proved what was already suspected; robots reduce loneliness and isolation.
“One of our patients, John Redmond, loves having his as a companion. He’ll talk away to it all day.”
Seventy-nine year old Mr Redmond – who has been living alone in a state house for 20 years – calls his robot ‘Sneezy.’
Sneezy - a desktop robot (pictured) - reminds Mr Redmond to take his insulin and plays country music for him.
Another patient reported seeing her grandchildren much more often since having a robot at her house, Mr Metzler says.
Staff reaction to the robots has been positive as the novelty factor adds value to the workforce, he says.
Gore Health has ordered a new software upgrade to its Cafero robot, also known as Charlie, says Mr Metzler.
He says Charlie can save the company running costs of about $80,000-$120,000 per year.
He costs about US$16,000, a big step up from the smaller iRobiq which cost about US$4,000 each. Gore Health has bought one Cafero and three of the desktop iRobiq models.
Charlie is a fully upright robot who can roam hospitals and aged care facilities on his own. With his software upgrade this week he will be able to provide a body mass index as well as monitor vital signs.
Mr Metzler says patients will be able to stand on the robot to weigh themselves. Charlie can also talk to patients and users can play games on his own entertainment unit.
Path to commercialisation
University of Auckland researchers – electrical engineering professor Bruce MacDonald and psychological medicine lecturer Dr Elizabeth Broadbent - are working with Gore Health to make the robots useful.
Professor MacDonald says there has been plenty of interest in the technology from Kiwi healthcare providers.
“We could have the product in doctors’ offices in three months if we just had the right company to support it.”
The hold up is finding a company which can provide technical support and upgrades for the software involved, he says.
Meanwhile the University of Auckland research team has been studying whether patients prefer more human-like robots. The robots can display human faces on their screens.
Dr Broadbent says while it was originally thought robots with human elements freaked patients out, a newly published study shows the reverse is true.
The majority of participants - 60% - preferred a robot displaying a skin-coloured 3D virtual face over a robot with no face display (30%) and a robot with silver-coloured simplified face (10%).
Dr Broadbent says one of the key challenges with robots is getting people to accept them.
“Some people think they look uncanny and creepy so appearance is very important to make sure people don’t find them freaky.”
“Within five to ten years they will become more acceptable, and as the younger generation comes through.”