Changi General Hospital patients Mariamah Ismail and Lee Lim Song having a therapy session with the Pepper robot. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - At a ward in Changi General Hospital (CGH), a 120cm-tall robot calls out to patients: "Hello everyone, I am Pepper. Let's do an exercise together."

The embodiment of the smiley-face emoji, Pepper can respond to audio cues in English and is programmed to engage when patients are unresponsive too. The robot demonstrates simple movements for exercise and also gets patients to sing or recognise songs.

Robots like Pepper are changing the face of healthcare in Singapore by interacting with patients and complementing the work of nurses. CGH alone deploys about 80 robots, including telepresence robots at the Intensive Care Unit and Covid-19 community treatment facilities. These robots help patients make teleconsultations with doctors and video calls to loved ones.

CGH also has cleaning robots and robots that move medication, medical specimens, patients' case notes as well as heavy items such as patients' meals and beds.

The Pepper robot deployed in the wards is the creation of SoftBank Robotics. Pepper robots can be programmed for various functions. They have been deployed at Changi Airport to work in retail and can potentially teach pre-schoolers.

Pepper was first trialled in CGH in 2019 and has since been used in the wards and the Geriatric Day Hospital at CGH. CGH's nurses worked with programmers to develop physical activities and cognitive activities suitable for patients.

Patients and staff approve of Pepper, says CGH's senior nurse clinician Li Fuyin, who is also an advanced practice nurse. Advanced practice nurses are experts who work with doctors and other healthcare professionals to provide complex nursing care to patients.

Pepper conducts group activities for senior patients, including those with functional decline, dementia or delirium. It can engage patients multiple times a day, freeing nurses to spend more time on clinical tasks and interaction with individual patients.

Between three and eight patients get to engage with Pepper in each session. A nurse monitors patients for breathlessness or signs of discomfort or disinterest.

In general, patients find Pepper endearing and some families ask where they can buy their own robot companion.

Madam Mariamah Ismail, 86, calls the robot "cantik" (Malay for beautiful) and "cute" after engaging in a session. Another participant, Madam Lee Lim Song, 76, also calls Pepper "cute".

Senior nurse clinician Li says that more than 200 patients in the ward and outpatient settings have engaged with Pepper and say that sessions are fun and easy to follow. The next stage is to programme Pepper to speak in local dialects.

Other hospitals around Singapore also deploy interactive robots. Alexandra Hospital has used a mobile robot made by multinational robotics company temi to visit housebound patients and provide medication. Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) deploys a temi robot as a pharmacy assistant.

Other applications of robotic systems in healthcare here include automation systems in pharmacies, as used in CGH and TTSH. TTSH and the National University Health System (NUHS) also deploy robot exoskeletons for rehabilitation.