Robot offering medical support

High-tech devices are providing doctors with critical medical information but also providing patients with much-needed companionship.

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Chelsea Hogan has had to endure far more than most six-year-olds.

The young Sydney girl was diagnosed with leukaemia two years ago and is undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and daily blood tests.

Her mother, Barbara Hogan, says the hospital has become their second home.

“Our whole world was just rocked, and it’s never been the same ever since. It’s been pretty hard. And the chemotherapy is quite harsh on the body, and sometimes the side effects of that have been extremely hard on her, so the treatment can sometimes be harder than the actual cancer itself.”

Ikki is a highly intelligent social robot that has helped take the girl’s mind off her medical challenges.

The small, robust, penguin-shaped device sings, reads and plays games with her.

It can even speak in its own language when she says hello.

Barbara Hogan says the robot is like a friend and provides companionship for her daughter.

“She seems to be quite happy to have him around, and it’s nice to have another friend on board. And I think anything that can aid her, to give her some more happiness and give her a little bit of joy along the way of this very long journey, I think it’s great to have him on board.”

At first glance, Ikki looks just like a toy, but it has features beneficial for doctors.

By holding the device up to a child’s forehead, Ikki can take his or her temperature.

If a fever is detected, an alert is sent to the parents.

Dr Michael Stevens is the senior paediatric oncologist at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in western Sydney.

He has worked closely with the developers of Ikki to come up with a suitable device.

He says detecting a fever early can save a person’s life.

“The possible infection that’s causing the fever can be life-threatening in our patients because they don’t have any immunity. Their immune system has been switched off.”

Ikki is also programmed to remind the child to take medication, which Dr Stevens says can relieve the burden from parents.

“A child with leukaemia takes two medicines by mouth for 18 months at the final stage of treatment. That’s potentially curative. But it has to be given meticulously every day, and we know that a lot of our patients — we think a lot of our patients — aren’t all that compliant with their treatment.”

Clive McFarland is one of the founders of the device at ikkiworks.

He says Ikki gives doctors access to important information they would never have had before.

“You know, the medication type and the time it was taken are all logged. Same with temperature and so on. So, again, the clinical team has got information which, normally, they don’t have access to because it happens outside of the hospital environment.”

Mr McFarland says it is hoped the robot will give the children a sense of independence.

“These children, they get this diagnosis, and a lot of the empowerment that they may have had in their life is taken away from them. Just, things happen to them. And, this way, Ikki gives them back some responsibility. It’s their job to take their temperature. Also, Ikki will remind them when it’s time to take their medications.”

The Children’s Hospital hopes to begin trials for companion robots like Ikki early next year.

While it will be used to help sick children, plans are already in place to take Ikki far beyond its initial capabilities.

Dr Stevens says the device can be adapted to be used in a myriad of healthcare areas.

“All of the other illnesses of childhood — diabetes, cystic fibrosis, kidney disease — there are applications that will be able to be built into it to help all of those carers and their patients. And it’s not just children either. I think it will work pretty well for adults and even old folk.”