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Touch of Technology and a Pinch of Pepper

Touch of Technology and a Pinch of Pepper

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Townsville Hospital is offering an innovative approach to patient care with the addition of ‘Pepper’ the robot to their staff roster over the course of the next few months.

It’s a pioneering project for our region’s major health hub, as the first hospital in Australia to trial the machine with social abilities, whose number one quality is its ability to perceive emotions.

Pepper is a semi-humanoid robot manufactured by SoftBank Robotics with the capacity to recognise your face, speak, hear you and move around autonomously. The technology and capabilities Pepper offers have been well received around the world with the first batch of 1000 ‘Peppers’ launched in 2015 selling out in just 60 seconds.

Townsville Hospital and Health Service’s Executive Director of Nursing & Midwifery Services, Judy Morton, said Pepper’s presence has so far been received extremely well.

“Essentially, Pepper is an interactive humanoid robot; a concierge service of sorts which can talk to hospital visitors and patients and give them information,” Judy explained. “If nothing else, people seem to enjoy interacting with her, which is what the research is really all about.

Pepper’s arrival at the hospital is part of a joint research project with the State Government and Queensland University of Technology’s ARC Centre of Excellence in Robotic Vision. Townsville Hospital’s resident cybernetics enthusiast, enrolled Nurse Annie Elvin, is leading the trial and programming of Pepper.

Judy said it’s all thanks to Annie’s enthusiasm that they have been able to take part in this cutting-edge approach to patient care.

“Annie has been working for quite a while to get this project and research over the line and it really came down to her perseverance, which we were fully supportive of,” Judy said.

“We came to look at what the future may hold, looking at where we are now from 10 or 20 years ago, and I suspect as the world moves on, there will most certainly be a change in how people access information.”

While it is a coup for the hospital to be at the forefront of such evolving technologies, Judy makes it very clear that nothing will be replacing our regions talented and dedicated clinicians saying “Pepper is not in any way a replacement clinician”

A team of researchers will be following Pepper’s movements while in the short stay unit to evaluate their newest recruit’s effectiveness and assess patient reactions while this hospital humanoid answers their questions. Pepper’s capabilities allow her to offer advice on what a patient can do if they’re feeling unwell, where they can park and guide them to the closest café.

“It’s about how we interact,” she stated. “We all use iPads, but it’s interesting that when you add a robotic element to that, how people can have different perspectives of what that then is.”

Judy believes that while Pepper’s capabilities are impressive, it is just scratching at the surface of what the technological capabilities are at her forward-thinking workplace.

“We are now a digital hospital, and one of the main hospitals in Queensland that is in the process of putting all of our records onto a digital format,” Judy revealed.

“The interactions our clinicians have with our records will, in the future, all be digitally based. We’re at the forefront of that from a Queensland perspective. It’s not a big leap to think that we might use some form of interaction with our patients in a digital format in the future, but we can’t predict yet what that will look like. It’s an enormous process!”

After a month’s work in the short stay unit, Pepper will get some work experience in the main foyer of Townsville Hospital, where patients and visitors will be able to interact and receive information.

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