Social Robots - A new tool in health care that may be as effective as a human clinician

A Monash Researcher has found that small interactive robots are proving useful in helping people develop and implement healthy lifestyle plans, showing they can support weight loss and healthy habits

The research trial, led by Dr Nicole Robinson, placed 26 social robots with participants to deliver a multi-session behaviour change treatment program around diet and weight reduction.

The robots interact with users and guide them through their program by providing audible prompts.

Results found the robot-delivered program helped people to achieve more than 50 per cent snack episode reduction and 4.4kg average weight loss.

The trial also found an autonomous robot-delivered program may be as effective as a human clinician delivering a similar intervention.

“There has been previous work in digital health and wellbeing programs using smartphones and web-based digital applications.  We were interested to see how a social robot might be able to support health and wellbeing - given that it has an embodiment, it looks like a companion, it can be in the room and talk to people,” Dr Robinson said.

The social robot program follows a health-coaching method known as functional imagery training, designed to prompt self-reflection.

The robot took participants through a series of questions designed to get them thinking about how they might make a change and create a plan to see positive change in their lifestyle. It then invited participants to interact with the robot and develop a goal to improve their eating habits.

“The robot was able to work with them to help come up with a plan. People were able to discuss a lifestyle behaviour that they wanted to change, and the robot helped them to come up with steps to start making that change,” Dr Robinson said.

Dr Robinson hopes to now explore if the social robot program can apply to other health areas.

“If a robot can be programmed to provide support to treatment, they become another piece of technology that can extend the reach of the clinician to provide greater support to both patients and practitioners,” Dr Robinson said.

Dr Nicole Robinson is a Research Fellow at Monash University with a cross appointment with the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences.    This trial involved teams from the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision,  the Turner Institute at Monash University and the Queensland University of Technology.

Read more on the program in Monash Lens.

Read the full paper in Science Direct: Social robots as treatment agents: Pilot randomized controlled trial to deliver a behavior change intervention