Your Next Therapy Partner Could Be a Robot

You own a thriving therapy practice with both physical and occupational therapists on staff. Things are good. But you know the day is coming when you will have to bring on a new partner to keep up with demand. How would you feel about that partner being a robot? The possibility is more real than you might think.

Our collective desire to bring medicine into the technology era is yielding some great results. Socially assistive robots (SARs) are a great example. SARs are already being used on a limited basis for certain kinds of rehabilitation. According to a recent report in the Science Robotics journal, SARs have a lot of potential.

Matching Therapy with Survival Rates

At the heart of the SARs concept is a reality voiced by the Science Robotics report. The researchers behind the report made it clear that their study of robotics for therapeutic purposes is motivated by the reality that survival rates linked to diseases and injuries resulting in severe functional deficits are only likely to increase in the future.

Take stroke, for example. New technologies and modalities are allowing doctors to save more patients than ever before. But along with increasing survival rates come increasing rates for patients left to deal with cognitive and functional deficits. All these new survivors are going to need therapy.

Both occupational and physical therapy are in desperate need of new blood. Like just about every other field of medicine, there are just not enough young people entering the therapy field to keep up with current and anticipated future demand. If humans are not there to do the work, the only other choice is to turn to machines. That is where robotics come in.

Building the Right Kind of Robot

In its current state, robotics is not yet ready to take over for occupational and physical therapists full-time. They may never reach that point anyway. Still, scientists are working hard to build the right kind of robot; one that is capable of both assisting human therapists and creating a positive patient experience.

One of the things scientists are working on is creating robots with social skills. They understand that therapy patients need to be able to relate to their therapists. They need to be able to trust the person who is trying to help them recover from a serious accident or disease. Without that ability to bond socially, patient and therapist have a challenging time making progress.

Robots are, by default, non-social entities. Scientists are working on changing that. One of the ways they are doing so is by coming up with a means of programming robots so that they have goals similar to their patients. The thinking is that adapting robot programming so that it can be customized to each case will make patients more comfortable interacting with machines.

There are also language barriers to overcome. Therapy patients sometimes need to be spoken to in certain ways to help them understand what is going on. Sometimes it takes a gentle word or a stern admonition to get the point across. Robots have to be capable of figuring this out in order to make the best use of language.

That next professional you bring into your practice may not be a locum or new therapist fresh off residency. It might be a robot. How would you feel about that? Hopefully, both you and your patients would be comfortable enough with robot therapists that treatments would go on unabated. That is the goal of a group of researchers hoping to get robots ready sooner rather than later.

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