Social robots set to play a crucial role in mental health treatment

  Last updated June 7, 2019 at 9:57 am


Social robots that can autonomously communicate could play a greater role in how mental health is treated by encouraging patients to discuss sensitive topics.

Social robot_mental health treatments_mental health

Pepper delivering a brief health assessment and providing customised feedback

970 million people struggle with mental health or substance use disorders. Now, researchers are hopeful that social robots could be used to help people discuss sensitive topics such as depression, drug and alcohol abuse and eating disorders.

A new study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research has reviewed global studies into the use of robots on health or well-being outcomes.

Nicole Robinson from the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, headquartered at the Queensland University of Technology says initial results from these studies indicate a “therapeutic alliance” between robots and humans.

“The beauty of social robot interventions is that they could help to side-step potential negative effects of face-to-face therapy with a human health practitioner such as perceived judgement or stigma,” she says.

“Robots can help support a self-guided program or health service by interacting with people to help keep them on track with their health goals.”

Social robots won’t replace healthcare professionals

Robinson says healthcare professionals will not be replaced by robots, and instead hopes that social robots will instead assist them in their treatments of patients.

“Our research is not about replacing healthcare professionals, but identifying treatment gaps where social robots can effectively assist by engaging patients to discuss sensitive topics and identify problems that may require the attention of a health practitioner.”

“Practitioners may then focus on more personally satisfying and challenging work, including their relationship with the client; enhancing and maintaining motivation; collaborative goal setting and planning; and addressing severe, complex, or co-occurring problems.”

Very few global studies into robots and medical treatment

Robinson adds that the global trials on the use of robots in medical treatments are “very few and unsophisticated.”

Of the 27 global trials into the use of robots in psychological health intervention, many involved a small sample size, focused on a narrow target group and very few had any follow up-examination.

In order to address this gap in research, Robinson is taking part in a research project assessing the use of SoftBank’s Pepper robot in one-to-one interactions in healthcare.

The three-month study, due to be completed next month, involves Pepper delivering a brief health assessment and providing customised feedback that can be taken to a health practitioner to discuss issues around physical activity, dietary intake, alcohol use and smoking.


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