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Pet robots could reduce anxiety and improve vitals, says new research

Meet Susie. She is a furry, five-pound, wide-eyed gal who looks, acts and sounds like a baby harp seal. Beneath her white fur, though, is a mix of metal and wires programmed for a very specific purpose.
For the past several years, that purpose has been to help elderly patients with memory loss find comfort amid the confusion of clinical settings. Now, nurse researchers at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Irving are putting the pet robot, a.k.a. Paro interactive robot, up for an all-new test — to see if the cuddly machine can combat behavioral problems and improve the health of any adult patient with anxiety, agitation or restlessness.

“In the past, Susie has been used with dementia patients in the acute care setting,” said Penny Huddleston, PhD, RN, CCRN, co-investigator for the research study and magnet coordinator on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Irving.

Dr. Huddleston added that Susie is named after Susan Howell, an employee who worked for Baylor Scott & White – Irving for more than 30 years and passed away from cancer in 2012. Susan’s legacy now lives on in two ways: Through an education fund at the Irving Healthcare Foundation (which funded this research with a $6,000 grant to purchase the seal) and Baylor Scott & White – Irving’s Paro namesake designed to comfort the distressed.

“When we were looking for methods to reduce anxiety and agitation in patients in the hospital setting, we thought about how animals, in general, relax people — so we wondered if the Paro pet would do the same,” Dr. Huddleston said. “Plus, there were no infection concerns or possibilities of a patient being injured by the Paro pet.”

An Alternative to Animal-Assisted Therapy

The Paro pet robot, invented by Japanese researchers in the early 1990s, was first made available in the U.S. in 2009 and has since been cited for its positive effects on seniors’ health and mood. Some practitioners view the device as an alternative to animal-assisted therapy, which has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and blood pressure.

A total of 40 patients will take part in the study, evenly split between those who interact with Susie and control patients who receive the standard of care for reducing anxiety and agitation (i.e. deep breathing; listening to the C.A.R.E. Channel or music; mental stimulation; and/or physical activity). Patients will be drawn from Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Irving and Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – McKinney.

“The seal moves its head toward the person interacting with it, makes seal noises and moves its fins when spoken to and petted. The more the patients interact with the Paro, the more the Paro responds to them.” — Penny Huddleston, PhD, RN, CCRN

During the hospital stay of non-control patients, nurses will place Susie in the patient’s room for 30 minutes, twice daily for two days. They’ll encourage those patients to interact with the pet robot, which has special sensors that recognize and react to human sounds and touch with baby animal-like responses. Among all participants, researchers expect a mix of hospitalized adults diagnosed with anxiety, agitation and/or restlessness — which could include cases of alcohol withdrawal, dementia, drug abuse or other conditions that trigger behavioral concerns.

For example, the seal moves its head toward the person interacting with it, makes seal noises and moves its fins when spoken to and petted. The more the patients interact with the Paro, the more the Paro responds to them.

The Future of Pet Robotic Therapy

If, as researchers hypothesize, Susie does make a difference in patient health — whether by decreased anxiety levels or improved vital signs — future research may continue to explore the Paro device’s use for behaviorally disturbed patients. Dr. Huddleston’s team expects to compile and review results by the early part of 2017.

“If the results of this research study are significant, the Paro therapy will provide another opportunity to assist patients to be less agitated or anxious while in the acute care setting,” Dr. Huddleston said.

“The hope for this study was to find alternative therapies that would assist the nursing staff in decreasing the anxiety and/or agitation of the patients.”

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Pet robots could reduce anxiety and improve vitals, says new research