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Sheffield Children’s hosts robot research study

Photograph of child Brandon and Pepper the Robot at Medical Daycare
28 February 2022

Say hello to Brandon and Pepper the Robot – they met at Medical Daycare as part of a pilot study investigating the potential use of social robots in hospitals.

Children who visit hospital can feel anxious, distressed, or worried, and previous studies have shown that social robots – ones that interact with humans through speech and movements – can help to reduce these feelings.

This study, which is sponsored by Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, is being led by PhD student Brenda Littler from the University of Sheffield.

Brenda is exploring the types of interactions between social robots and patients aged five to 12, as well as the emotional impact of meeting the robots.

Ten-year-old Brandon visits Sheffield Children’s every two weeks for treatment for his eczema which he has suffered with since the age of two. Eczema is a condition which causes the skin to become itchy, dry, cracked and sore.

Brandon’s appointments can feel long, lasting four to five hours, but meeting the robots has made them a lot more interesting! He met Pepper, a tall humanoid robot, and MiRo, an animal-like robot.

Brandon said: “Pepper is my favourite because it can play the saxophone and is really funny. I also liked MiRo’s squishy ears!”

Pepper can be programmed to move, talk, and even dance, while MiRo can make animal-like sounds and has sensory and motor abilities.

Brandon’s mum, Leanne, said: “Taking part in research has been really interesting. Brandon absolutely loved meeting the robots at the appointments and even asked if he could take Pepper home with us! Pepper told Brandon a story, danced and followed him around which he thought was great.

“Brandon’s eczema comes and goes, but it’s been really bad for the past two years. I suffer with eczema myself and was treated at Sheffield Children’s when I was little, which is why I wanted Brandon to be seen here. I can’t fault any of the staff, they’ve been amazing – particularly Abbie and Laura who we see at Medical Daycare, and researcher Brenda, who was fantastic.”

The robots visited other areas of Sheffield Children’s – the Theatre Admissions Unit, Haematology and Oncology Unit, and Ward 3.

Researcher Brenda, from the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research (SchARR), said: “We’re doing this study because we wanted to find a way to help reduce the anxiety and distress levels in children visiting hospital and help take their mind off everything that is going on.

“Some children who come into hospital might be with us for a number of hours, so being able to offer them something fun and new to entertain them and help their wellbeing is great. I am hoping the results of the study will help us understand how social robots can fit in a hospital and work alongside staff, and how we can go about introducing them in different settings.”

Prof. Paul Dimitri, Professor of Child Health and Consultant in Paediatric Endocrinology at Sheffield Children’s, is supervising the project. He said: “Sheffield Children’s is committed to advancing the care of the children and young people we look after through the use of new and exciting technologies. Social robots have the ability to support our patients, some of whom have complex and challenging journeys due to ill health.

“Brenda’s work is ground-breaking in helping us to understand how our patients react and respond to different types of social robots, and how we best use them in children’s healthcare. As a leader in child health technology, Sheffield Children’s is developing a diverse range of novel technologies as part of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Children and Young People MedTech Cooperative, established to support the development of world-leading technologies for children’s healthcare.”

Brenda added: “Conducting research at Sheffield Children’s has been an amazing experience. Everyone has been so helpful and supportive. I have met amazing health professionals who really care about their patients and are there to make a difference in these children’s lives.”

The project is a collaboration between Sheffield Children’s, University of Sheffield, and Sheffield Hallam University.

Listen to Brenda’s interview with BBC Radio Sheffield here to hear more about the study.

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