Robot eases kids' vaccination distress in study

Nurses have long relied on misdirection to make vaccinations less traumatic for nervous children. A 1994 study found that making kids blow out during their shots cut pain behaviors, and just keeping a child talking is a well-worn technique. Now a form of misdirection for the modern age has arrived.

Canadian researchers have tested the use of a $15,000 robot in the misdirection role. A group of 57 children aged 4 to 9 with a moderate to severe fear of needles were vaccinated with the robot present, or in the traditional way. Children who interacted with the robot while receiving their shots reported significantly less pain and distress than those in the control group, the researchers write in the journal Vaccine. Parents, nurses and researchers also saw fewer signs of pain among the robot group.

The robot--designed by French company Aldebaran Robotics--sat across from the child and spoke to them throughout the procedure. After introducing itself and high-fiving the kid--during which time the nurse prepared the shot--the robot used the old blowing technique, asking the child to help it clean a toy by exhaling. By timing the blowing to coincide with the injection, the robot tried to lessen the pain of vaccination.

"The robot was distracting the child during distress, but also giving instruction for how to cope. Deep breathing relaxes the deltoid muscle," the study's principal investigator, Tanya Beran, told The New York Times. Having the robot issuing instructions also changed the parent's role. The parents in the robot group took a more active role--encouraging their kid to blow on the toy, for example--instead of just holding the child's hand.

Having demonstrated the potential of the technology--albeit in a small, single-site trial--the team at Alberta Children's Hospital is now looking to refine the system and test further applications. A follow-up study might look at whether the robot is more effective than any other distraction, such as a human. The finding could affect whether the robot is considered economically viable. While it is a substantial upfront investment, the researchers think it could run for a decade with $500 worth of maintenance per year. And as the technology advances, the cost should come down.

- read the NYT piece
- check out the journal abstract

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