Seal of approval for robotic pup

PARO dementia-friendly toy to be introduced to UK hospital wards after research addresses infection control concerns

The PARO seal pup has been found to reduce anxiety and improve the wellbeing of people with dementia

Robotic seals that respond to touch and speech are a step closer to being introduced onto dementia wards following new research.

The furry seals – known as PARO – have been studied by researchers at the University of Brighton and have already been shown to bring comfort and to enhance the wellbeing among people with dementia.

But there were concerns about meeting the strict infection prevention control requirements of hospitals and other care facilities as the seals were deemed difficult to clean.

As a result, hygiene and cleaning tests were carried out over nine months on a 10-bed dementia ward run by Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

The test was run by Dr Kathy Martyn, a principal lecturer at the University’s School of Health Sciences.

And the results, which were recently published, show that PARO was maintained within acceptable limits for NHS infection control measures.

Lead researcher, Dr Penny Dodds, who recently moved from the University to the charity Dementia UK, said: “To our knowledge, this was the first testing of the infection prevention and control aspects in the world and we are delighted with the results.

“We have demonstrated that, under controlled conditions, PARO was safe within the hospital setting for an acute care dementia unit.

“We have demonstrated that, under controlled conditions, PARO was safe within the hospital setting for an acute care dementia unit

"It is hoped this can allay concerns from those who have been hesitant about using PARO in the NHS.”

She added: “It is anticipated that PARO will receive Medical Devices Status in the UK shortly and the distributor is preparing it for the UK market. We could be seeing PARO on wards throughout the country in the not-too-distant future.”

Research is ongoing as the team is hoping to get a weekly clean of PARO down to just 15 minutes.

PARO was invented by Professor Takanori Shibata from Japan and research has shown that is lessens stress and anxiety, promotes social interaction, facilitates emotional expression, and improves mood and speech fluency among people with dementia.

It has built-in sensors and its artificial intelligence allows it to ‘learn’ and respond to names patients give it. It also reacts to being stroked and spoken to, wriggling, turning to the person, opening its eyes and letting out an appealing squeak.

Dr Dodds said: “There are similarities to pet therapy, but PARO does not have the immediate association of a cat or dog and is easier to supervise.

“Unlike real pets, PARO always behaves, has rechargeable batteries, is always available, and it should last about 12 years.

“The most-important aspect is the improvement PARO makes to a patient’s quality of life.”