Visit with a robot: B.C. researchers test out new way to connect in long-term care

It rolls into the room at the University of British Columbia Hospital in Vancouver smoothly and almost silently: a device with a vertical tablet-like screen mounted atop a pole, and attached to a two-wheeled base.

On the screen, a man looks out and smiles as he drives the robot around the room, from his location about 30 kilometres away in Surrey.

The ability to use simple remote controls to manoeuver the futuristic device, which is known as a telepresence robot, is part of the reason it’s now being tested out at long-term care homes in Metro Vancouver, as part of a three-year pilot project aimed at helping reduce social isolation for residents.

Study lead and research associate with the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences Dr. Lillian Hung said feeling isolated can affect long term care residents at many levels. The pandemic has only exacerbated those feelings.

“People with dementia, many of them do not fully understand what the COVID-19 pandemic is about...sometimes they just feel very confused about why families are not visiting,” she said. “I have seen people stop eating. They think their families are not visiting, they’ve forgotten about them.”

While demand for virtual visits via tablets surged during the pandemic, Dr. Hung said that method also has its pitfalls, including demands on already busy care home staff.

“When it comes to connecting, they have all kinds of problems,” she said. “The resident couldn’t hold on to the iPad, or they’re not seeing the resident, they’re seeing the ceiling.”

Dr. Hung, who is also an assistant professor at UBC’s school of nursing, said they wanted to find a way to make those virtual visits easier. With the telepresence robots, “it requires absolutely zero effort from the resident side.”

UBC engineering student Charlie Lake is customizing software and conducting user training for the pilot project. He said family members can control the robot remotely from wherever they are, using a home computer or other device.

“We send them a link, they just click on that link and that’s all... Their face will show up on the screen and from there they can drive around the room and interact with people,” he said. “You can either drive it manually, like arrow keys, or, which I find really cool, you can just click on the ground where you want to go.”

The robot’s height can also be altered remotely, and it will instinctively avoid obstacles.

“Say you wanted to go on a walk with a resident in a long-term care home, you can roll along with them,” he said. “Coming from engineering, I didn’t plan on joining a nursing lab to do stuff like this...but I find this sort of work really, really cool because I can see the actual impacts of it. I can see videos of residents being super happy to see their families, getting really excited about the robot. I can see the real impact.”

Study co-lead and patient partner Jim Mann said he is able to provide a different perspective as someone who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.

“I think this particular technology is phenomenal,” he said. “It’s a fairly wide screen, so that the individual in long-term care feels a presence, if you will.”

Mann recalled conducting a virtual visit with one of the robots at a Richmond, B.C., facility, and how residents were interested in engaging in conversation with him.

“It was as if I was there,” he said. “We were laughing...we were having a wonderful conversation...it’s not anything that is scary, it’s pretty unobtrusive.”

Mann said there are great opportunities for this kind of technology “across the system” in long-term care.

“You could wheel the robot up to the table and join your father in having lunch,” he said. “When you consider the issues that we are currently experiencing with COVID-19 and the inability of people to visit family members, this would be the next best thing.”

The robots cost about US$4,000 each. So far, they have been tested out at four long-term care homes in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

Dr. Hung said they have never been used before in long-term care, but have been used by tech companies for staff to attend meetings virtually without having to travel overseas.

She added alongside normal in-person visits, the robots could help improve quality of life for residents.

“Everyone deserves to have their family presence,” she said. “The robot provides that opportunity.”