Robots may help patients with lung disease stick to treatment

A study suggests take-home robots can help patients with COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stay on track.

Abrar Al-Heeti Technology Reporter
Abrar Al-Heeti is a technology reporter for CNET, with an interest in phones, streaming, internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. She's also worked for CNET's video, culture and news teams. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
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Abrar Al-Heeti
3 min read

A robot could help patients with COPD manage their condition after being discharged from the hospital.

According to a study published this month in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, socially assistive robots can help patients stick to their medication and exercises.

Woman using an inhaler, France

Robots can help patients with COPD stick to their medication and exercises at home.


COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is primarily treated through medication and behavioral changes such as exercising and giving up smoking, according to the study, but only around 50 percent of patients adhere to their medication. The study says that compliance has been linked with better education, less depression and "higher satisfaction with the patient-provider relationship."

The New Zealand study involved 60 patients, who were randomized to either have the iRobi robot at home for four months or were placed in a control group. The robot was programmed to monitor patients' health and contact medical staff if there were any problems. It measured things like pulse oximetry, forced expiration volume, heart rate and mental status using a questionnaire. The robot also reminded patients to take their medication and use their inhalers, and to do their rehab exercises.

An "I am feeling unwell" button prompted the robot to ask if the situation was an emergency, in which case it advised the patient to call emergency services. If not, and the concern was related to the patient's COPD, it initiated an assessment of pulse oximetry, forced expiration volume and heart rate, and sent a text alert to the study physiotherapist. An alert was also triggered if parameters weren't in the normal range, or if medications or exercise were missed more than three times in a row.

Patients who had the robot stuck to their inhalers at an average rate of 48.5 percent, while the control group had a 29.5 percent rate. But there were "no significant differences in the number of respiratory-related hospitalizations between groups."  

Robots are being used in other areas to support both physical and mental health. Socially assistive robots can make experiences in hospitals and nursing homes more enjoyable by serving as companions to the lonely or ill. They're also helping to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Preliminary evidence suggests that people respond better to robots than they do to computers when it comes to receiving health instructions. Of the 25 patients in the COPD study who had a robot, 19 reported feeling favorably toward it. 

The study's authors noted that while these results suggest that a homecare robot can improve adherence to medication and rehab exercises, more research involving a larger sample size is needed to see if robots can have an impact on hospitalizations. 

"We recommend improvements to the robot, changes to the way it is incorporated into the health care system, and a larger study comparing robots with other forms of technology, before stronger conclusions can be made," they said.

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