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Sensors developed by Woo Soo Kim, a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering, can be used to measure body temperature, heart rhythm and electrical activity.SUPPLIED

Canadian healthcare workers are already challenged by increasing workload over the past few years. Now we are learning they are also facing significant verbal and physical violence. A 2020 study by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions found 92.7 per cent of nurses had experienced at least one incident of physical assault, and nearly half (46.4 per cent) had been physically assaulted 11 or more times. An extremely complex problem that requires a multi-pronged solution, there’s one surprising innovation that might mitigate these stressors: robots. More specifically, sensors that can be attached to robots, like those currently being developed at Simon Fraser University (SFU) by Woo Soo Kim, a professor in the university’s School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering.

Dr. Kim and his team developed 3D-printed, replaceable sensors that detect electrical signals from people’s bodies and can be used to measure a patient’s temperature, their heart’s rhythm and electrical activity. “I think this is first time blood pressure has been measured just from contact between the robot sensor and human skin,” he says.

There are many potential applications for this technology. It can be used in wearables, so healthcare workers can monitor a “patient’s” health remotely. Eventually, it could be a useful way to address staffing shortages; Dr. Kim says these sensors could be used as a preliminary screening tool at busy walk-in clinics, collecting basic biomedical data so that nurses and doctors can focus on more complicated care. But the application he is most excited about is how it can help protect healthcare workers and patients.

“When an older patient comes to the hospital, they might be nervous about seeing a large team of clinicians that they don’t know, especially if they have dementia. So, it can be very hard to go through the admissions process, or do a physical exam, or do a psychiatric assessment,” says Lillian Hung, Canada Research Chair in Senior Care and an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s School of Nursing who is familiar with Dr. Kim’s work.

Robots, for instance, could be used as a method of breaking the ice between patient and caregiver. This technology can be a way to gather important biometric data without upsetting a patient or potentially sparking a confrontation that may lead to violence toward a healthcare worker.

Right now there are robots that can be comforting (Hung has developed a fuzzy robotic seal named Caspar to help soothe patients with dementia) and robots that can collect data (also known by the name Grace, an ultra-lifelike robot nurse developed by Hong Kong robotics company Hanson Robotics that has sensors that allow her to measure temperature and pulse), but none that combine the two – and that’s what makes Dr. Kim’s work so exciting.

“Woo Soo is leading the future,” Dr. Hung says.

While this type of technology provides a buffer that helps prevent tense situations from escalating, it can also improve patients’ experiences and even health outcomes – especially if they are part of a vulnerable population, such as seniors or people with dementia. As Dr. Kim points out, one of the biggest challenges the healthcare system has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic is how to care for residents of senior homes during isolation.

“Sometimes nurses or other healthcare workers could not go into a resident’s room [because of risk of infection],” he says, noting that the consequences of disrupted care can be extremely serious. “But, if we had these kinds of robots that could detect residents’ biometric signals, it could have helped a lot in terms of reducing the amount of interaction between healthcare workers and seniors.

Dr. Kim sees this technology as essential to the future of healthcare. “A lot of people will be familiar and interested in interacting with them, but some are not there yet,” he says. “So, we have a duty to make them friendlier and ensuring these kinds of robot will be useful for patients.”

Dr. Kim’s project is one of SFU’s many research efforts to help address some of the biggest challenges faced by Canada today. The work done by the university’s researchers, staff and students are focused on driving innovation, improving public health, fighting climate change, promoting democracy and creating new economic opportunities. Click here to learn more about SFU’s economic contributions.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Simon Fraser University. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.