Robots have again proven themselves faithful health helpers to Kiwis - this time in managing a nasty lung disease.
In the latest trial of robots being deployed in our homes, researchers observed how cute iRobi bots effectively reminded patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to take their medication and exercise.
The study, just published in Journal of Medical Internet Research, aimed to investigate whether machines help patients rehabilitate at home - something which had potential to boost quality of life and slash rates of hospital re-admission.
COPD-related trips to hospital cost an average $4800 each.
While the robots didn't make a big impact in bringing down admissions among the 25 patients assigned them, the related costs were lower than among a further 29 patients who received standard care.
"The research is helpful as it suggests that a homecare robot can improve adherence to medication and increase exercise," said the study's lead author, Associate Professor Elizabeth Broadbent, of the University of Auckland's School of Medicine.
"But further research is needed with a larger sample size to further investigate effects on hospitalisations after improvements are made to the robots.
"The robots could be especially useful for patients struggling to take their medication."
The four-month trial involved iRobis helping patients living in relatively isolated rural areas, living alone or with a spouse, and who left their homes fewer than four times per week.
The machines were programmed to measure heart rates, breathlessness, and quality of life on a weekly basis.
They reminded patients when to take medication and inhalers and recorded patient adherence several times a day; reminded patients to do their rehabilitation exercises, and displayed videos of a patient performing these at least twice weekly.
On top of that, they screened information about COPD, allowed the patients to use an "I am feeling unwell" function on demand, offered wifi-linked "smartinhalers" to monitor inhaler use and showed them their health trends over time.
All the while, specialist physiotherapists closely watched the data as it came back in.
The robots' patients turned out to be much more consistent in taking their long-acting inhalers and exercising than the control group.
Most of those patients were happy to have them there helping - and the robots were also a hit with children who visited.
They found the robots good company, and many became so close with their companions that they named them.
But that wasn't always the same case - three participants didn't find the robots of any use and sent them back, while another three felt un-nerved about having them in their homes.
The study, funded by a Health Innovation partnership grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the National Health Committee, followed previous trials in Gore and Auckland where healthcare bots helped elderly patients, checking their blood pressure and heart rate, and monitoring for falls.
New Zealand has keenly pursued the approach, teaming up with Japan to trial a range of different robots.
Scientists expect artificial intelligence will have a growing role in healthcare and hospitals, feeding clinicians a wealth of information to help treat and diagnose patients.
Two Northland clinicians have previously suggested AI could soon perform a significant amount of the diagnostic and treatment decision-making traditionally performed by doctors.