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Social robots set for role in mental health treatment

6th June 2019

Robots that can autonomously communicate with people could be playing a greater role in mental health treatments in encouraging people to discuss sensitive topics such as depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and eating disorders.

Dr Nicole Robinson, along with co-authors Timothy Cottier and Dr David Kavanagh, has published a review on global studies into the use of robots on health or well-being outcomes in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

In the paper, A Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials on Psychosocial Health Interventions by Social Robots, Dr Robinson examines the 27 global trials in the use of robots in psychological health interventions and found that many of them involved a small sample size, focussed on a narrow target group and few had any follow-up examination.

Dr Robinson, a Research Fellow with the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision headquartered at QUT who led Australia’s first study into the positive impact of social robot interventions on eating habits, said the global trials on the use of robots in medical treatment were “very few and unsophisticated”.

But despite the need for further research, Dr Robinson said the initial results indicated a “therapeutic alliance” between robots and humans could lead to positive effects similar to the use of digital interventions for managing anxiety, depression and alcohol use.

“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,” Dr Robinson said.

“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.

“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.”

Dr 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.

Media contact:

Rod Chester, QUT Media, 07 3138 9449, rod.chester@qut.edu.au

After hours: Rose Trapnell, 0407 585 901, media@qut.edu.au

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