Robot trials ready to seal the deal

Proving the benefits and cost-effectiveness of animal robots in the treatment of dementia is the focus of a Griffith University study, following a cash boost of over $1m from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Previous work by Professor Wendy Moyle and her team at the Griffith Health Institute’s Centre for Health Practice Innovation last year, found that contact with a robotic seal “Paro” created many positive benefits for elderly dementia patients, including lowered anxiety and a decreased tendency to wander.

Invented by Japanese technologists and commercially used in several European countries, the Paro – which costs around $5000 – can respond to touch, temperature and voice and can even learn people’s names.

Now having received the NHMRC grant, Professor Moyle plans to conduct a large-scale study which will provide a thorough evaluation of the Paro’s benefits and dispel any doubts that may have been displayed about the research so far.

380 participants across approximately 30 long-term care facilities will take part with an extended research team which will assess emotional states in participants such as agitation. Measures including video observation and assessment of physiological responses will be used.

Different to any other trial

“This study will be different to any other that has gone before as it will be the first very large, randomised trial looking at the robots’ effect on people with dementia,” she said. The new study will see the aged care facilities be randomised into one of three conditions: PARO, plush toy, or usual care.

“We are interested in understanding if it is the interactive robotic features of PARO that reduce emotional, behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia, and we will conduct a cost analysis of PARO and/or plush toy as non-pharmacological methods to reduce agitation and improve mood states in people with dementia.

“The Paro has some fantastic benefits for the treatment of dementia patients but so far we do not have a large-scale quantitative evaluation that examines the effect of the Paro on an individual’s emotional state and its cost benefit in reducing pharmacological costs. This is what we will be now aiming to achieve in this study.

“The statistical evidence that we collect will be used to examine the cost effectiveness of the Paro within care facilities versus the costs of pharmaceutical treatment for people with dementia.

“If for example, we are able to show that we can reduce psychotropic medication to a patient by 10 per cent by using the Paro or alternatively show that they can stay at home for longer without admission to a care facility, then that would be a fantastic result with direct cost benefits.”

Professor Moyle’s research study is set to begin in April 2014.

Large nursing homes within SE Queensland that would like to volunteer to be in the study are asked to contact Professor Wendy Moyle on w.moyle@griffith.edu.au or 07 3735 5526.

Photo shows Professor Wendy Moyle (Griffith Health Institute, Centre for Health Practice Innovation) with Nancy Greenlees, a resident of Wesley Mission Brisbane’s Sinnamon Village aged care community and Professor Takanori Shibata.