By Michal Prywata
As technology continues to evolve, we’ve seen incredible progress in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) within the healthcare industry as medical institutions seek out new ways to improve patient treatment and care.
Specific practice areas capitalizing on both technologies are physical and occupational therapy, with a particular focus on people who experience mobility issues due to neurological injury or stroke.
The loss of motor skills is common in stroke survivors, as the patient is often impaired on one side of the body, leaving it difficult to walk, or even squeeze a hand to grip something. Current patient care relies on therapists to help survivors to learn how to balance and strengthen muscles through a series of exercises and stretches.
While traditional therapy methods are tried and true and still yield results, recent research around motor learning interference and motor memory consolidation has shown that the optimal way to treat patients with neurological disorders is through a collaborative effort of robots and human therapists, where the robots focus on reducing physical impairments and the therapists assist in translating impairment into gains in function. Physical therapy with human therapists results in about 60 movements per session, while therapy powered by AI and robotics sees about 1,000 – a 1,600 percent difference in favor of the patient.
With 15 million people diagnosed with a stroke worldwide each year – and one third being left permanently disabled and in need of physical therapy to help them regain even a fraction of their original physical mobility – the enhancement in treatment offered from robotics and AI cannot be understated.
Motor impairment after stroke may also lead to significant limitations in daily activities that we take for granted, such as standing and walking, or completing simple tasks like tying shoe laces or hugging a loved one. Current care methods rely on physical therapists manually helping patients to learn how to balance and strengthen muscles through a series of exercises and stretches. While certainly an effective treatment over the last decade, traditional therapy for stroke survivors and other patients diagnosed with neurological injuries/disorders falls far behind what is possible when technology is integrated into the course of care.
Current robotic therapy systems can guide exercise treatment in a way that is more precise than a human therapist could, particularly due to the amount of data it can process that can make it “smarter” as it learns the patient’s capabilities. If a patient is unable to move, they are gently assisted to initiate movement toward the target. If coordination is the issue, robots can guide the patient through the movement, adjust the amount of assistance, and provide important sensory feedback that ensures the patient is practicing the exact movement in the correct way. As the patient gains strength and ability, the robots provide less assistance and greater challenge.
Most importantly, robotic/AI therapy intervention provides quantifiable feedback on a patient’s progress and performance in a way that a human therapist cannot. A patient following stroke can struggle to understand their progress when performing a task without seeing gross motor improvements, like the ability to form a fist or wiggle their toes. Consequently, the patient can become dejected because they feel like they are not making progress in their recovery. The data capture and sensor abilities of these technologies will show the actual incremental improvements that the patient is making minute by minute, and day by day, because it can detect even the most subtle movements.
To be clear, the human element of therapy is certainly not obsolete. The human connection between a patient and a therapist is still a hugely important factor, as this type of patient treatment is often emotional, which is something a machine cannot yet provide. It is crucial, however, to supplement the human element with the incredible innovation of robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, to provide the best care available for this growing patient population.
About the author: Michal Prywata is co-founder and chief technology officer of Bionik Laboratories, a robotics company focused on providing rehabilitation and mobility solutions to individuals with neurological and mobility challenges.