There are many employees with a colleague named Sara. But if SARA stands for Social & Autonomous Robotic Health Assistant, that’s probably not a colleague you are used to. SARA is the ‘robot care colleague’ that the Eindhoven-based company Bright Cape has developed. The project is part of a European EIT Digital Innovation Consortium and is intended to reduce the workload in healthcare and to guarantee the quality of care in general.
The SARA robots can interact with patients, like reading stories, showing videos, playing word games or reciting music. They can also offer basic fitness training. SARA already works in two Dutch healthcare institutions: Care group Elde Maasduinen and TanteLouise in Bergen op Zoom. The results so far are so encouraging that SARA is continuing as a start-up, says EIT Digital.
“The ageing of the population is presenting European society with challenges,” says Emmy Rintjema, SARA activity leader within Bright Cape. “The number of elderly people and the number of people with chronic diseases is increasing, while at the same time care institutions and hospitals are struggling with staff shortages and heavy workloads. In these situations, it is necessary not to work harder and harder, but to work smarter.”
This year’s SARA was developed as an EIT Digital innovation activity within a consortium of EIT Digital. Next to Bright Cape from the Netherlands, also Forum Virium Helsinki and GIM Robotics from Finland, and Curamatik en de Technische Universität Berlin from Germany are part of it. In 2020, SARA will continue as start-up SARA, a spin-off from Bright Cape that also leads the consortium. “We believe that robots can make a major contribution to healthcare. They can work together with healthcare professionals and thus reduce the workload,” says Rintjema.
That this actually has results, is demonstrated by a pilot project at the Elde Maasduinen Care Group and at a nursing home in Finland, which are involved in SARA development as test locations. “SARA is still in a prototype version that we are fine-tuning together with residential care centres. We mimic the work of a healthcare professional and test the functionalities.”
The results of the pilot are positive, says Rintjema. “Employees experience that SARA can indeed reduce their workload.” Healthcare professionals put SARA to work for residents so that they have their hands free to help other residents.
According to Rintjema, the most important lesson is that the system can be an addition to care for the elderly and especially for people with dementia. “Mental and physical stimulation has a positive effect on slowing down the disease process of dementia.”
The concept of robots in the healthcare sector is not new. Most of these robots are unable to function independently. According to the makers, the SARA robot can act largely autonomously. “Thanks to the SARA Home system, healthcare professionals can, for example, upload the input of a healthcare plan from the patient file to SARA. In this way, SARA knows that one patient prefers to hear stories and another patient needs musical stimulation. Healthcare professionals can add activities to this.”
According to Bright Cape, SARA can be set up differently for each residential care centre. “SARA can also ask a patient how things are going and give feedback to healthcare professionals. They can then act immediately if SARA receives a signal that someone is experiencing more pain than usual.”
SARA focuses primarily on the Dutch healthcare market. There are plans for English, German and Finnish SARA sisters. The focus of SARA is now mainly on care for the elderly. This could be extended to hospital care in the future. For the time being, the development focuses on perfecting SARA, says the project leader. “We want to improve the interaction and we want to investigate whether and how we can make SARA move independently.”