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This Robot Can Comfort Children Through Chemotherapy

·National Correspondent, Technology

MEDi also knows how to hand out business cards. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

For many young children, visiting the doctor for even the most routine medical procedures can be traumatizing. But a new robot — now available for hospitals for purchase — is there to ease the process.

MEDi, short for Medicine and Engineering Designing Intelligence, acts as a children’s companion in doctors offices. Equipped with facial recognition, multiple cameras, and the ability to speak 20 languages, MEDi is able to comfort and soothe children through their procedures, with the robot programmed to adapt depending on the situation.

“It’s going to introduce himself and build a rapport,” Mark Williams, a MEDi rep, told Yahoo Tech. “It’ll tell them what to expect. But once they get involved in the medical procedure itself, it’ll tell them what they should be doing, how they should be breathing, and how they should be coping. It’s choreographed along with the medical procedure itself, so he’s giving the right advice, he’s watching them and responding to their actions during the procedure itself.”

So say a child is visiting the doctor for her annual flu shot. As her arm is swabbed with rubbing alcohol, MEDi will make conversation about how the sensation feels like “a puppy licking your arm” to distract from the seriousness of the situation.

MEDi is the result of a nearly three-year project headed by Tanya Beran, a professor of community health sciences at the University of Calgary in Alberta. Beran headed a study that observed 57 children of varying ages. Each was randomly assigned a vaccination session with a nurse, who used the same standard procedures to dispense the medication. In some of those sessions, MEDi used cognitive-behavioral strategies to assuage the children as they got the shot. Afterward, children, parents, and nurses filled out surveys to estimate the pain and distress of the whole shebang. 

The study, published in the June 2013 issue of Vaccine, found that those kids who had MEDi by their sides during the procedure reported much less pain than their robot-less counterparts.


MEDi can also dance. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

Since those findings, Beran has been working to enhance the capabilities of MEDi so that he has routines for procedures that parents aren’t always alloweed to be in the room for. These range from blood transfers to surgery to chemotherapy. Added-on features like MEDi’s facial recognition help bolster his abilities. For instance, if a child is undergoing a treatment that requires frequent visits, MEDi will automatically recognize that patient after their first meeting.

These additional applications, however, will cost hospitals. Though MEDi’s body — made by Aldebaran Robotics — retails for $9,000, the applications required for him to aid in medical procedures bring that total to anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000, depending on what the staff wants him to do. 

Later this month, four MEDis will be deployed in the Alberta Children’s Hospital to be the first units tested in the wild. It’s Beran’s hope that many more will follow.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her.