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Social robots set for role in mental health treatment

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology have recently published a paper reviewing the use of robots on health and well-being outcomes worldwide. Robots that are designed to communicate with people autonomously are playing an increasing role in mental health management, encouraging patients to talk about sensitive topics associated with depression, eating disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse.

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Dr Nicole Robinson, one of the researchers, reported that the study examined 27 trials from around the world that explored the use of robots in mental health interventions. Dr Robinson added that, in general, the studies were “very few and unsophisticated”, highlighting the need for further research in the field.


Despite these limitations, Dr Robinson states that these initial findings indicate a therapeutic alliance between humans and robots that has the potential to lead to positive outcomes similar to the use of digital interventions for managing certain mental health conditions, such as 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 commented.


“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.”


The research was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

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Technological innovation is undoubtedly making a huge impact in the healthcare industry, changing the landscape of health significantly. This research highlights just one from a growing number of examples of how healthcare is attempting to embrace these changes.


The use of robots to complement mental health care is a very exciting, albeit relatively new, field of interventional research. But understandably, the use of any form of artificial intelligence in health care brings about special ethical challenges.2While these are plentiful, we draw attention to two key points. First, who controls the robot, and who is accountable for the actions of the robot? Should this be the mental health practitioner, the robot designer, or everyone involved in the entire process from design to patient interaction?2 Second, there are patient safety and quality of care concerns. As pointed out by Professor Maureen Baker, 


Chair of the Royal College of GPs in the United Kingdom:

“Fundamentally, no machine has any ‘understanding’ of the human condition.”


“The role of a doctor is multifaceted… it’s judgement, it’s communication, it’s diplomacy, it’s tact, it’s pattern recognition… A robot might be able to do elements of this but not all.”


It’s definitely a question of watch this space. Undoubtedly it is important that the healthcare industry embraces technology and innovation; however, we must proceed with caution and take into account all relevant ethical considerations.

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