Staying in touch

April 25, 2018     

Robot Keeps Young Cancer Patients Connected

Joris, an 18-year old cancer patient in France, was isolated in the hospital while undergoing treatment when he received an unexpected opportunity: front row seats to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

His immune system was depleted and he had been instructed to avoid crowds. But a new robot allowed Joris to stay connected to the outside world, and he was able to see the Olympics in a unique way from halfway around the world.

“This technology let me see things other than the hospital and even allowed me to do things that I could not have done otherwise, such as go to Rio,” Joris said. “With this robot, I’m in charge of its movements, I drive it with the keyboard of a computer, and I can travel without moving!”

The telepresence robot, known as VIK-e (Victory in Innovation for Kids – electronic), allows children to stay connected with their families, classmates and classrooms while they spend time in isolation in pediatric oncology wards or at home. It is supported in part by Bristol Myers Squibb France.

First Program in France

Young Patient, doctor and nurse interactive with Vik-E robot

A telepresence robot is a remote-controlled, wheeled device standing about the same height as a 10-year-old child. It typically has wireless internet connectivity and provides video and audio capabilities on an attached tablet. Telepresence robots are also used in other industries, often to stand in for tour guides, night watchmen, factory inspectors and healthcare consultants.

Placed in the patient's home or classroom and linked by WiFi or a 4G connection, the child controls the robot's movements and interacts with the outside world through video screen on a personal computer. This provides the otherwise-isolated patient with a presence at home or in a classroom, allowing him or her to join in family conversations at mealtime or participate with teachers and peers in learning activities.

VIK-e was developed by Awabot, a French robotics startup and introduced at hospitals in France in September 2016. It is the first program of its kind in France.

VIK-e is a collaboration bringing together Bristol Myers Squibb France, and the Institute of Haematology and Paediatric Oncology of Lyon (IHOPE), the Health Corporation Group of the Centre Léon Bérard and the Hospices Civils de Lyon, the Philanthropic Association of Parents of Children with Leukemia or Other Cancers (APPEL) and Awabot.

For employees at Bristol Myers Squibb France, keeping patients at the center of everything they do means working to improve the lives of one of the most vulnerable group of patients, children and young people living with cancer.

“There is still a long way to go in fighting the disease and its long-term consequences,” said Jean-Christophe Barland, who led the project at the time as senior vice-president and general manager of Bristol Myers Squibb France. 

“This battle is complex and we know that we need to continue our commitment to helping young patients and their families,” he added. “VIK-e is a fundamental project for us, not only because it is a first for hospitals in France but also because it is the result of a great collaboration focused on fostering a better quality of life for young patients during and after cancer treatments.”

With VIK-e, children are able to maintain a real presence in their home and classroom, participate in activities and interact with their family, teacher and classmates — Christine Witz

Helping Patients Stay Connected

Young Patient using Vik-E Robot

While children vary in their ability to cope with the stress of hospitalization, several recent studies found a significant proportion do suffer some degree of emotional disturbance due to hospitalization and separation from their loved ones.

“With VIK-e, children are able to maintain a real presence in their home and classroom, participate in activities and interact with their family, teacher and classmates,” said Christine Witz, who coordinated the project for Bristol Myers Squibb France.

“It has been a great source of pride for us at Bristol Myers Squibb France to introduce a project that is helping young patients stay connected to their worlds,” she said.

The project supports up to 10 patients per year between the ages of 10 and 25 as part of the Teenagers and Young Adults Cancer Plan. This initiative at the Centre Léon Bérard and the Institut d’Hématologie et d’Oncologie Pédiatrique aims to improve medical and psycho-social care and support for children with cancer.

The patients and families taking part in the VIK-e project, all volunteers, are selected according to the length of time the child is expected to stay in the hospital.

The project is proving to be a life-changing initiative for patients and their families, and it will continue to be evaluated two more years by research psychologists. The study will examine how the device facilitates care and treatment and its effect on relationships between families, patients and healthcare teams.

Each year in France 2,500 children are diagnosed with cancer. While 80 percent of pediatric cancer patients are alive five years later, cancer is still the leading cause of death due to illness among children in France.

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