With advances in technology, robotic rehabilitative treatment is moving from hospitals into homes. This bodes well for an ageing population for whom such services will increasingly be needed.
Robots have been used in the medical field since the 1980s to assist with surgeries. Since then, they have also been deployed in other aspects of medicine, such as rehabilitation, particularly neurorehabilitation.
For patients who have suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury, neurorehabilitation plays an important role in helping them recover and regain use of their affected limb.
BENEFITS OF ROBOT THERAPY
Therapeutic robots support clinicians in tailoring and delivering intense rehabilitation treatments. The robots, equipped with AI and depth cameras, can monitor the patient’s form as they go through prescribed exercises and track progress more precisely than the human eye, as well as optimise assistance for the specific user. They can provide information to clinicians as well as immediate feedback to patients.
In addition, they also have the advantage of being able to deliver therapy at a much higher intensity than conventional therapy. A 2015 study of patients with stroke, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, showed that, after 12 weeks of therapy, patients who received robotic training had slightly larger reductions in arm impairment compared with those who received the usual care.
In many cases, patients need intensive therapy to see tangible results. As such, they may have to stay longer in a rehabilitative facility or pay frequent visits to the hospital for treatment. Robot therapy can help speed up the process. Further inventions, such as the icone — a portable neurorehabilitation robot — have improved accessibility to the therapy as it can be used outside of traditional hospital settings.
ROBOTS AT HOME
In Singapore, icone — developed by Heaxel, a company based in Rome and Singapore, and launched here in July 2019 — has been installed in the homes of two patients who are currently undergoing rehabilitation for stroke-induced upper limb impairment. This has allowed them to go through intensive therapy for the past three months in the comfort of their homes.
Following the sessions, patients have found improvements in their dexterity, grip and control. “In 20 days, he was able to open water bottles again,” enthused a caregiver; another patient found the system “easy to use”. Physiotherapists, meanwhile, report that their patients enjoy using icone because of its exergames (exercise plus video games), and also because it tells patients how well they are improving. Exergames help to retrain the brain to gain control of limb movements.
Through the use of robots such as Icone, physiotherapists are also able to receive feedback on how the patient is doing and reduce chances of making mistakes.
Robots have become especially useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, with hospitals and clinics deploying them for a much wider range of tasks to help reduce exposure to pathogens and enable patients to continue their treatment — in some cases, even during lockdowns. Clearly, the operational efficiencies and risk reduction provided by health robotics offer value in many areas.