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Vancouver medical project using robots for virtual visits in long-term care (VIDEO)

Ten prototypes are being used around the city.

An innovative Vancouver medical project is taking caregiving into the future.

CHÉOS (Centre for Health Evaluation & Outcome Services) researcher Dr. Lillian Hung has launched a new study examining virtual visits using mobile robots to help reduce social isolation in long-term care.

Dr. Hung is the founder of UBC's IDEA Lab (Innovation in Dementia and Aging) and a clinical nurse specialist at Vancouver Coastal Health.

Her research team was looking for self-sufficient ways care residents could connect with families.

"With the robot, you have to do absolutely nothing. You just have to be in front of the robot, the family will come on, the robot will turn on," she explains.

There are now 10 prototype telepresence robots at sites around Vancouver General Hospital. Telepresence robots are remote-controlled, wheeled machines with wireless internet. The robot uses a tablet or similar device to provide video and audio capabilities. Family members or physicians operate the robots remotely through a provided link; their images and voices are observed through the respective robots.

Response to the project has been extremely positive.

"People are amazed at how straightforward it is and find it so cool. When people see how helpful it is, how easy it is to use, they're blown away." says team member and UBC engineering student Charlie Lake.

The project is several months into a three-year study and the benefits are already evident.

Family members who don't live nearby and can't manage physical visits can now connect virtually. Physician consultations are also proving easier with robots. Researchers are even using robots to interview residents involved with other projects.

However, the team is adamant the specialized robots aren't meant to replace the human workforce or in-person contact.

"The robot is not there to replace the in-person visit, but it supplements it. It gives a lot more possibilities," says Dr. Hung.