'Like a friend': Robots giving young cancer patients much-needed support


'Ikki' may be small but this highly sophisticated device - with emotional and social intelligence - is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Chelsea Hogan has had to endure far more than most six-year-olds.

The young Sydney girl was diagnosed with leukaemia two years ago and is undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and daily blood tests.

The hospital has become her family’s second home.

"Our whole world was just rocked, and it's never been the same ever since,” her mother, Barbara said.  

“The chemotherapy is quite harsh on the body, and sometimes the side effects of that can be extremely hard on her, so the treatment can be harder on her, than the actual cancer itself."

Ikki is a highly intelligent social robot that has helped take Chelsea’s mind off her medical challenges.

The small, penguin-shaped device sings, reads and plays games with her. 

It can even speak in its own language when she says hello.

Medicial robot
The robot can detect if a child has a life-threatening temperature.
Mikey Hamer

Mrs Hogan said the robot is like a friend and provides companionship for her daughter.

"She seems to be quite happy to have Ikki around, and it's nice to have another friend on board. When children are first diagnosed, it is quite scary, and I think, if you were to give them something like Ikki as a companion to start with, it would ease their pain."

More than a toy

At first glance, Ikki looks just like a toy, but it has features useful for medical practitioners.

By holding the device up to a child's forehead, Ikki can take his or her temperature.

If a fever is detected, an alert is sent to the parents.

Dr Michael Stevens, the senior paediatric oncologist at The Children's Hospital at Westmead in western Sydney, has been working closely with the developers of Ikki to come up with a suitable device.

He said detecting a fever early can save a person's life.

"It can be life-saving. The possible infection that's causing the fever can be life-threatening in our patients, because they don't have any immunity. Their immunity has been switched off by the chemotherapy," he told SBS World News. 

Ikki is also programmed to remind the child to take medication, which Dr Stevens says can relieve the burden from parents.

"A child with leakeumia takes two medicines by mouth for 18 months at the final stage of treatment. That's potentially curative. But it has to be given meticiously every day, and we think a lot of our patients aren't all that compliant with their treatment."

Companion robot
Companion robots have the potential to be used in other healthcare sectors, including aged care and rehabilitation.
Mikey Hamer

Clive McFarland is one of the founders of the device at ikkiworks.

He said Ikki gives doctors unprecedented access to important clinical information.

"The medication type and the time it was taken are all logged. Same as the temperature. The clinical team has got information which, normally, they don't have access to because it happens outside of the hospital environment."

The hope is the robot will give the children a sense of independence.

"These children, they get this diagnosis, and a lot of the empowerment that they may have had in their life is taken away from them, just things happen to them. And, this way, Ikki gives them back some responsibility. It's there just to take their temperature, and Ikki will remind them to take their medication."

Huge potential in healthcare

The Children's Hospital hopes to begin trials for companion robots early next year.

While it will initially be used to help sick children, plans are already in place to take Ikki far beyond its original capabilities.

"The potential for this device is massive, in terms of all of the other illnesses of childhood - diabetes, cystic fibrosis, kidney disease,” said Dr Stevens.

“There are applications that will be able to be built into it to help carers and their patients. And it's not just children either. I think it will helpful for adults and old folk."

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