Rochelle Mendonca (top left in photo, with her team of Temple students) is improving rehabilitation technology and helping to address the critical shortage of practitioners in her field.
Picture this: You’re injured. You’ve received a few of your allocated in-person sessions with an occupational therapist, but you still haven’t reached your optimal functional ability. On your next visit, you walk into the clinic and up to a machine. It hands you a pen and paper and walks you through the steps for writing your name. “Good job! Let’s try it again,” it says, offering words of encouragement at just the right moment. At the end of the hour it records your progress, helps you set your next goal, and sends a report to your human OT. The entire visit costs a fraction of what you’d otherwise pay for an hour of your therapist’s time.
Far from science fiction, this scenario may be a real option in the not-too-distant future. Rochelle Mendonca, assistant professor of instruction in rehabilitation sciences, is working with a team of fellow occupational therapists, computer scientists, and engineers at Temple and the University of Pennsylvania to develop robotics that increase patient access to occupational therapy.
Getting robots to take on part of the job is hardly a case of technology for technology’s sake. Occupational therapists help individuals with disabilities to regain functional skills lost due to injury or illness that are essential for daily living, work and leisure activities. And OTs have some important puzzles to solve. The profession faces a national shortage that’s especially pronounced in rural areas. Current rehabilitation technology is not mobile, it’s expensive, and it is not optimized for post-acute care—therapy that occurs in the crucial 60-day window when patients see the greatest improvements. Mendonca’s solution attempts to address all the puzzle pieces in a single C-3PO-esque package.
“It isn’t quite that sophisticated, but we are working toward a certain level of fluency in the interactivity,” she says.
The team is working on two systems. The first is an innovative, inexpensive multi-station system for outpatient gyms or clinics. Each station focuses on a different type of function, including shoulder, wrist, and finger movement, and includes a Wii-powered balance ball game. “Current systems focus on movement, but research indicates that movement doesn’t necessarily translate into function,” Mendonca says. That’s why her team’s robotics models focus instead on functional activities that patients typically have to practice, such as pouring water into a glass, brushing their teeth, or using a pen.
The second system they’re experimenting with is a mobile unit that would move around with clients who are more able to navigate their environment. Both systems are built on a gaming framework to provide continuous feedback and keep patients engaged and motivated. Both are intended for use in hospitals and clinics in rural areas and parts of the world where resources are limited. And both would enable OTs—who supervise and monitor all of the work between patient and robot—to attend to multiple patients at once while providing quality care to each.
“The therapist is always going to be needed,” Mendonca says. “This technology is designed to support the therapist and the patient.”