A current hot topic in the clinical research industry is the movement to make clinical trials more patient-centric. This discussion focuses around the large time commitment and subsequent inconveniences that are traditionally required for patients during a clinical trial, which can lead to dropouts.
Keeping this in mind, the industry is realizing the importance of making trials more accommodating and patient-focused. One pediatric trial, nick-named the “Huggable experiment,” has developed a new therapeutic (and quite adorable) tool for making clinical visits more comfortable and enjoyable for young patients. This 90-patient randomized trial involving Boston Children’s Hospital and M.I.T’s Media Lab, introduces the robotic teddy bear, Huggable, to engage patients during clinical visits. Tracking physiological changes and patient reactions, researchers evaluate the therapeutic value of social robotics in such a setting.
Currently, Huggable operates as a sort of robotic puppet, requiring a remote operator to respond physically and vocally to patient communication. It features body sensitive skin with over 1500 sensors, video camera eyes, microphone ears, a speaker and an embedded PC. The Huggable team hopes to improve the functionality of the bear to eventually allow it to operate independently and act as a “member” of the Child Life Services team.
This trial divides the 90 participants, ages 3 to 10, into three groups. One-third of the patients interact with the Huggable robotic bear, one-third with a virtual version of the bear on a tablet computer and one-third with a regular stuffed bear. The goal is to determine how the patients interact differently with the Huggable as opposed to the other two bear forms.
So far, patients’ reactions to Huggable have been positive. Staff at Boston Children’s Hospital believe the bear both comforts and distracts the young patients while they are in the hospital’s potentially stressful environment. One nurse reports that Huggable redirected her patient’s attention while she administered medication, helping to alleviate the usual patient struggle and nervousness.
What can be learned from this example?
While a robotic teddy bear might not be practical for every clinical trial, making an effort to alleviate the anxiety and inconvenience of clinical visits can go a long way to improve a patient’s trial experience. Listening to patient concerns, accommodating patients’ needs, maintaining trial transparency and individualizing patient experiences are techniques that will likely increase patient retention and potentially increase patient compliance. The Huggable experiment displays the potential use of technology in patient-focused trials, as advances in this area make individualized care a more accessible reality. Improving quality of others’ lives is a top perceived benefit for participating in clinical research; it should also be reflected in clinical trial design and conduct.