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Guest Blog: Dr Lou Farbus

Kirsty Marrs |29, April, 2022

EPIC met Dr Lou Farbus a few months ago, and back then she was skeptical about robots and their use within health and care… We couldn’t resist asking Lou to write a guest blog share her thoughts, and to tell you all how she feels now!

Lou is Regional Head of Stakeholder Engagement, for Shaping Our Future.

For me, excellent health and social care is always about the level of compassion in the relationship that develops between those who give and those who receive support. So, unless you were talking about the kind of technology I normally associate with health and care such as heart and blood pressure monitors, then you could say I was more than sceptical about the good that the latest innovations in robotics could bring to a person’s life. Moreover, after watching all the films where robots attempt to take over the world and the news reports about social media and smart televisions spying on us you could say that I was positively against sharing our lives with too much technology.

So, on behalf of Shaping our Future it was with some cynicism that I agreed to help EPIC to organise the Technology Enabled Care (TEC) event for frontline staff and managers in Cornwall. Like with all big events there is a lot to do and much that can go wrong on the big day, so you could say I was somewhat stressed when I was invited to interact with the companion animals that EPIC had brought with them. I avoided the cat at first as I have lived with real cats all my life and the thought that anything so wonderful could be in any way replicated by a bit of metal and screws was nothing short of insulting. That was until I was handed one and looked into its eyes as it purred its approval at having its ears scratched. Two minutes later I felt my blood pressure and concerns melt away and suddenly I was evangelical!

I was so impressed I bought my own companion cats from America for less than £100 that same night and have taken it to work for the last two months so more frontline staff across all sectors could experience what I had and see how a small, purring robot might support the work they do. Unsurprisingly, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with about 19 out of 20 people asking where they can get one or ordering them while I am there to guide them through the process. Surprisingly however, this is often for themselves rather than a loved one with dementia. I have even been approached by a mental health charity who would like to test the impact of the companion cat with people where anxiety is a key debilitating factor in their condition.

People have also come forward to suggest lots of places and situations when we can predict that people are likely to feel more anxious than normal. Why can’t we put robotic companion animals in every department where we know people receive difficult news or in every children’s ward? Could they help to reduce the incidence of staff abuse if we had them in departments where we know there is a high rate of assaults against staff?

However, it was PEPPER the humanoid robot that really turned me into a TEC Super Fan and if I could afford to buy one he’d already be in my house reminding me to take my blood pressure medication (or cuddle the robot cat) and inviting me to dance (he’s a surprisingly good little mover). He has really captured my imagination and I have bombarded EPIC with all kinds if ideas and questions about the possible applications and kept a close eye on youtube for any new videos to see where he has been this week since I first met him.

Could we programme him to run singing for lung health or chair yoga classes or create a version we could add attachments to so that he could vacuum the floor or cut the grass while he is wheeling himself about? Could we fit him with falls detector so he could alert someone if the person he is caring for takes a tumble or enable him to take and interpret people’s blood pressure or temperature? Could we programme him to detect when someone has been immobile for too long and encourage them to get up and stretch or take a short walk to prevent people from becoming frail and falling in the first place? Could we programme him to converse with people who live alone about their favourite programme on television, for example, can he be programmed to meaningfully comment on whether a celebrity’s latest effort was up to scratch on Strictly Come Dancing?

The list of ideas I’ve had is literally endless and I have spent many a happy hour doing my own research on what other robots are available and what they can do… hoping against hope that one day there will be a humanoid healthcare assistant in my price range. In the meantime, I shall keep taking my robot cat to work if only to encourage more innovation and bravery when we ask the people who provide our care to generate their own ideas for how we can improve health and care… the answer doesn’t always have to be human.