Social robots (SRs) are increasingly present in medical and educational contexts, but their use in inpatient pediatric settings has not been demonstrated in studies. In this study, we aimed to (1) describe the introduction of SR technology into the pediatric inpatient setting through an innovative partnership among a pediatric teaching hospital, robotics development, and computational behavioral science laboratories and (2) present feasibility and acceptability data.
Fifty-four children ages 3 to 10 years were randomly exposed to 1 of 3 interventions: (1) interactive SR teddy bear; (2) tablet-based avatar version of the bear; or (3) plush teddy bear with human presence. We monitored intervention enrollment and completion patterns, obtained qualitative feedback on acceptability of SR use from child life–specialist stakeholders, and assessed children’s positive and negative affect, anxiety, and pain intensity pre- and postintervention.
The intervention was well received and appeared feasible, with 93% of those enrolled completing the study (with 80% complete parent data). Children exposed to the SR reported more positive affect relative to those who received a plush animal. SR interactions were characterized by greater levels of joyfulness and agreeableness than comparison interventions. Child life specialist stakeholders reported numerous potential benefits of SR technology in the pediatric setting.
The SR appears to be an engaging tool that may provide new ways to address the emotional needs of hospitalized children, potentially increasing access to emotionally targeted interventions. Rigorous development and validation of SR technology in pediatrics could ultimately lead to scalable and cost-effective tools to improve the patient care experience.