How can a robot reduce medical stress in children with cancer?

How can an AI robot and other new technology – like VR and gamification – reduce medical stress among children under treatment for cancer, as well as among their parents and other loved ones? An innovation project in pediatric cancer care is currently exploring this topic at Karolinska University Hospital.

Needle punctures – one of the things that stresses children most

Children with serious illnesses are subjected to countless medical procedures while under treatment. One example is needle placement, which is one of the most stressful medical procedures for children, parents and healthcare personnel. Research shows that these experiences also influence how children perceive their treatment in general.
Influences perception of treatment

– Needle punctures are one of the things children dislike most – even though they are living with a serious illness and undergoing difficult treatments involving pain, nausea and vomiting. We know that such medical procedures are one of the things that most strongly influence how children perceive their illness – what we refer to as medical stress, says project manager Lisa Karin Bergström, head of nursing in pediatric oncology.

Many needle punctures are necessary while the child is under treatment for cancer. If things go wrong at the beginning, subsequent treatment becomes difficult and sometimes parents have to restrain their children. This increases the stress level for both children and parents. The treatments must be carried out and the needle punctures cannot just be wished away.

Preparations and information processing can work like magic, according to healthcare personnel

To reduce stress and anxiety it is important to prepare children and parents well and to provide some distraction and an opportunity to process the information. The project will explore whether an AI robot, supplemented by other technology such as virtual reality and various types of games, can help to achieve this goal. The idea is to give the children a greater sense of control over events – perhaps they can decide some of what the robot will do while undergoing needle puncture and other medical procedures?

Developing games that the patients want

The pediatric oncology department is developing this concept through a collaborative effort with industry partners Microsoft and Sigma, as well as several game development students at the Porter-Gaud school in South Carolina, US. Children under treatment at the pediatric cancer ward were given the chance to express their opinions on the type of games they would like and their wishes have been factored into the game development process.

Increased quality of life – and faster procedures

The most important outcome from using the robot and other technological support prior to and during medical procedures is expected to be reduced anxiety in both children and parents – which in turn can improve patient quality of life. There is also a time consideration: When a puncture goes smoothly, it takes about ten minutes, but if it is associated with stress and anxiety it may take an hour or more.

The project intends for this innovative approach to increase patient benefit, improve the working environment for staff and provide financial value for the healthcare organization through

  • reduced medical stress
  • reduced need for sedation in conjunction with procedures
  • reduced risk of costly complications in conjunction with procedures
  • reduced time requirement for healthcare personnel during procedures
  •  reduced need for support functions such as play therapists and psychologists

Per S Englund
Cell phone: +46 (0)76-569 67 18

AI robot support for children, parents and healthcare personnel during medical procedures

The innovation project explores how an AI-supported robot and other technology – such as VR (virtual reality) and gamification – can be used to reduce medical stress among children under treatment for cancer, their parents and other loved ones, as well as among healthcare personnel.

The project was initiated in 2018 and is being conducted by pediatric cancer care under the Children's and Women's Health theme, supported by the Center for Innovation at Karolinska University Hospital.
Other parties in the project: Microsoft and Sigma IT Consulting.
Financial support: the Region Stockholm Innovation Fund and the Swedish Childhood Cancer Fund.

Project manager: Lisa Karin Bergström.
Coordinators at the Center for Innovation: Per S Englund and Therese Sjöberg.

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