Robots at School! Helping Young Cancer Patients Connect

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By Dr Jennifer Cohen,(1,2), Ms Thomasin Powell(1), Associate Professor Pandora Patterson(1,3)

As lockdowns ease in Australia, and young people go back to school, families are breathing a sigh of relief. Young people have missed learning with their peers, seeing their friends, and lots of fun activities such as sport and music essential to being in a school environment. The experience of remote learning has shown parents how much young people thrive in the school environment. However, for young people undergoing cancer treatment, the end of lockdown does not mean a return to school. Instead, for these students, it signals an end to being connected with their peers through online learning and returning to being disengaged from the school community for extended periods. This disengagement from school can significantly impact a young person’s academic achievement and social and emotional wellbeing.

During adolescence, the diagnosis of a chronic illness and its treatment can affect how a young person engages with school. Compared with their peers, young people with chronic illness are four times more likely to face academic challenges, impacting their wellbeing.1 Young people with cancer are often worse off, experiencing more absences from school than those with any other chronic condition.2 Young people with cancer often have a long and difficult treatment, with physical side effects such as a lack of energy, changes in their appearance, and pain, leading to long periods spent in hospital, away from school. These long absences can not only affect a young person’s academic achievement but also lead to isolation and loneliness from being away from their friends and school community.

To help a young person experiencing school absence and make returning to school easier once treatment has finished, research suggests that academic support and regular contact with peers are needed.3 We recently interviewed young people with cancer, their parents, teachers, and health professionals and found inconsistency in the educational support given to young people during and after cancer treatment. Some programs could support a young person with their academic functioning but those we interviewed for the study reported feeling isolated from their friends as these school programs did not help with social connection. Young people felt like they were “missing out” when they couldn’t be at school with their friends for an extended period. This isolation had a significant impact on a young person’s overall wellbeing.

Using Technology to Support Young People

The experience of remote learning during the pandemic has shown us that technology can support young people, both academically and socially, using platforms like ZoomTM. Unfortunately, with students back at school for in-person learning, there will be fewer opportunities for a young person with cancer to connect academically and socially with their school. To provide academic and social support to young people undergoing treatment for cancer, Canteen, a national not-for-profit organisation that supports young people 12-25 years impacted by cancer, recently implemented and evaluated a telepresence robot support service. Telepresence robots are remote-controlled devices with wireless connectivity allowing both video and audio connection, and can be mobile or stationary. The telepresence robot allows a young person to control the robot within the school environment from their hospital bed or home. A service coordinator oversees the robot service, providing education to the young person, their family, and the school about using a telepresence robot. The young person is also assigned a psychosocial clinician who provides ongoing support as they use their robot. To ensure both the young person and school have a good user experience, on-call IT support is also available, and the service coordinator maintains communication with everyone involved in the service. Findings from our evaluation showed that the robot service helped young people connect with their friends and peers at school and allowed young people to feel a sense of control over their schooling. It also highlighted that the social and academic connections facilitated by the robot appeared to improve patients’ moods and reduce feelings of stress.

Embedding Robots within Healthcare and Education Systems

As young people return to school after extended lockdowns, we should pause and consider that for a young person impacted by cancer, remote learning may have been a positive experience. Now that in-person learning has returned, sustainable solutions are required to ensure that these young people can remain academically and socially connected to their school environment when they can’t get to school due to treatment and its side effects. Our evaluation of Canteen’s telepresence robots support service points to a feasible, acceptable, and beneficial service for these young people. Next steps include consideration of how such a model could be embedded more broadly across the education and healthcare system in Australia as a standard practice. It is vital within this model to ensure equitable access to young cancer patients across Australia, regardless of where they live.


References:

  1. Lum, A., C. E. Wakefield, B. Donnan, M. A. Burns, J. E. Fardell, A. Jaffe, N. A. Kasparian, S. E. Kennedy, S. T. Leach, D. A. Lemberg, and G. M. Marshall. 2019. “School students with chronic illness have unmet academic, social, and emotional school needs.” School Psychology. 34 (6): 627–636.
  2. Vance, Y. H., and C. Eiser. 2002. “The school experience of the child with cancer.” Child: Care Health Dev. 28 (1):5-19
  3. Lum A., C. E. Wakefield, B. Donnan, M. A. Burns, J. E. Fardell, and G. M. Marshall. 2017. “Understanding the school experiences of children and adolescents with serious chronic illness: A systematic meta‐review.” Child Care Health Dev. 43 (5):645-662.

Affiliations:

1 Canteen, Australia

2 School of Women’s & Children’s Health, UNSW Sydney

3 Faculty of Medicine & Health, Sydney University

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