When connecting with kids, don't overlook the fur factor

Two new programs turn mHealth into child's play
By Eric Wicklund
01:27 PM

The latest mHealth innovation may also be the most cuddly.

Teddy Bears are popping up in children's hospitals (and hands) from Boston to New York, offering the nation's youngest healthcare patients more than just the comfort of a stuffed animal. In at least two instances, they're being used to help pediatric patients deal with very serious health issues.

At Boston Children's Hospital, a talking Teddy Bear called Huggable is being tested out on children confined to the hospital for long stays. Developed by M.I.T.'s Media Lab and BCH's Simulator Program, the plush toy is combined with a bracelet, called a Q Sensor, that measures a child's physiological changes signs. Researchers at nearby Northeastern University are analyzing the data.

"We think a lot about heart rate, blood pressure and how much oxygen is in the blood, but we don't have a great monitor for how the child is feeling right now," Peter Weinstock, MD, the director of BCH's Simulator Program, told The New York Times. "What we do know is that children who are happier, who feel better, it can have a big effect on healing."

The Teddy Bear (it's part of a $500,000 social robotics program at BCH) can talk and play with patients, and is guided by a remote operator. Cynthia Breazeal, MD, director of the personal robots group at MIT's Media Lab, told the Times she hopes the Teddy Bear might someday be autonomous.

"We could someday see this as a standard of care, where every child who comes into the pediatric hospital might get something like this," she said. "It's not only the health and emotional and recovery benefits, but also logistical and financial, improving efficiency to the overall health system."

A Northwestern University-based startup called Sproutel, meanwhile, has developed a Teddy Bear to help young children with type 1 diabetes to manage their disease. Children can press Jerry the Bear's fingers to monitor his glucose levels, which are displayed on a screen on the stomach, and feed him various "foods" (on cards) and then program in the right does of insulin.

Roughly 500 families across the country now own Jerry. Company officials hope to have 12,000 out and about in the future.

"When you talk to parents who currently own Jerry the Bear, (they say) Jerry has given them the language to talk about type 1 diabetes," Hannah Chung, Sproutel's chief creative officer, told NBCnews.com. "Even siblings are really excited to learn about diabetes, and they really want to be active. They can have a conversation around the emotions around diabetes better."

Jerry has at least one high-profile fan. Chung and Sproutel co-founder and CEO Aaron Horowitz were invited to Washington D.C. in August for the first White House Demo Day, where they – and Jerry – met President Barack Obama. Jerry has also accompanied Chung to Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit, where they met Warren Buffett.

On Sept. 22, Sproutel will launch a second bear that focuses on general health and features customizable programs for such issues as allergies or asthma. Horowitz told NBC News that Teddy Bears like Jerry can reach children at a "special time when they're still forming behaviors and we have a special opportunity to make a positive change that will last throughout their lives."

"Our ultimate goal is to become the Disney of healthcare," he said.