Sitting in a living room in Oakland, a cute robot with giant eyes gazes at a 65-year-old with heart failure and asks how he’s doing, making conversation about the patient’s family and the weather while gathering daily details about his health.
Mabu, a robot roughly the size of a kitchen appliance made by a startup called Catalia Health, has been working with Kaiser Permanente patients over the last year. (Patients don’t pay for the robot, Kaiser does.) Within the next couple of months, it will also begin with rheumatoid arthritis and late-stage kidney cancer patients, funded by pharmaceutical companies who make drugs to treat those conditions. The goal: help patients with chronic diseases get better care than they could in a system run by humans with limited time.
Unlike a lot of other home health tech, the robot isn’t focused on reminding patients to take medication. “Most [others] take the form of reminders: glowing and beeping pill bottles and pill caps and text messaging systems and apps for your smartphone,” says founder and CEO Cory Kidd, who previously researched human-robot interaction at MIT Media Lab. “The reason that none of those have really worked is that the challenge that patients are facing is not forgetting to take their medication. There’s this assumption made that that’s what the issue is, but it turns out that’s not it.”
Instead, he says, a patient might decide to stop taking medicine because it doesn’t seem to be helping, or conversely, because they’re feeling better and don’t realize that they need to keep a steady dose of the drug in their system for the effects to last. Side effects are another problem. Through daily conversations with someone, the robot can discover these issues and offer advice while notifying human caregivers.
The startup, which has been developing Mabu over several years, worked to make technology that patients would actually use. One insight was simple, but key: Eye contact makes a difference. “When you put that little robot in front of someone who looks into the eyes while it’s talking to them, it seems that we get the psychological effects of face-to-face interaction,” Kidd says. The platform also learns about a particular patient’s interests and personality over time, helping it tailor what it says to build a stronger relationship and keep someone engaged over time. “What’s going on in the background is we’re actually constructing a conversation on the fly for that patient at that point in time,” he says. A large touchscreen displays questions in writing as they’re spoken aloud, to help patients who have trouble hearing.
Pharmaceutical companies already pay for care management programs for some drugs. But that usually involves, at most, a couple of calls a month from a nurse or pharmacist. At a similar price point, the robot can do much more. “Instead of us having a big call center full of nurses, we leverage the technology that we built, and that enables us to interact with patients much more frequently,” Kidd says. The robot doesn’t record conversations, but sends daily relevant data to a doctor.
In the initial launch with heart failure patients, the technology is working. In the past, patients often failed to keep written logs of their health to share with doctors at later appointments, but they’re using the robots. For patients who have been newly diagnosed and are overwhelmed–in the case of heart failure, for example, they’ll have to suddenly change their diet and watch carefully for any changes in their weight–the robot can reshare information that they received at the hospital.
For patients with chronic disease, “a lot of the challenge comes down to not necessarily what we do clinically–figuring out a diagnosis and recommending a treatment–but once we have that treatment, how do we help people stick with it longer? How do we help [share data with] healthcare providers? That is the core set of challenges we’re focused on solving.”