Robot trial to help elderly

Elderly residents in Gore are lining up to trial healthcare robots, when the town becomes the first place in the country to deploy them.

Gore Health Ltd, which runs Gore Hospital and a number of healthcare services, bought four healthcare robots, or healthbots, to help reduce costs, save staff time and improve patients' long-term health.

Gore Health is working closely with UniServices, the commercialisation company of the University of Auckland, which launched its healthbots project four years ago. The robots use hardware created in South Korea and software developed by UniServices and other New Zealand companies.

Gore Health chief executive Karl Metzler said the four healthbots were bought by Gore Health, assisted with funding from the University of Auckland and the Gore community.

The three smaller of the healthbots for the trial cost $4000 each, and the larger one, Charlie, cost $16,000.

Two smaller healthbots would also be loaned to Gore Health by the university.

''It's not about replacing doctors or nurses, it's about complementing and supporting their roles,'' Mr Metzler said.

''Charlie'', the large healthbot, will be based in the GP practice, performing tasks such as taking vital signs, while three smaller robots will be placed in patients' homes with the aim of extending independent living.

The three smaller healthbots will assist with aged care in the Gore community, serving as faithful companions to elderly patients, especially those needing long-term care for chronic conditions.

Technicians at Focus Technology Group are now fine-tuning the healthbots' software before they are put in homes late next week.

Mr Metzler said the healthbots helped combat loneliness by giving residents interaction.

Mr Metzler said the hard part would be deciding where to deploy the machines among those patients who volunteered. Some residents at Selwyn Retirement Village in Auckland, where robots were trialled, had becoming ''quite attached'' to healthbots, Mr Metzler said.

Using equipment attached to the robots, residents will be guided through a step-by-step process to check blood pressure and heart rate, with test data automatically transferred to clinicians and caregivers. Residents will be monitored for falls.

The healthbots speak and use voice recognition to talk to patients, reminding them to take medication. They move around and provide companionship.

In an emergency, such as incorrect medication data or abnormal vital sign measurements, healthbots are capable of sending a text message indicating a problem to any nominated phone number.

The use of robots could enable the chronically ill or elderly to stay in their own homes longer, Mr Metzler said. He believed this was the first time such robots had taken on permanent roles in a clinical setting.

Gore Health Ltd operates Gore Hospital with a 16-bed inpatient ward, 24-hour emergency department, a four-bed maternity ward and services, GP practice, dental practice and allied and community health services.

- helena.dereus@odt.co.nz