Singapore Taps Robots for Graying Population

In two decades, an estimated 20% of the population will be 65 years or older, compared to 9.3% at present.

Medical authorities are deploying the latest technology as fast-graying Singapore prepares for a "silver tsunami" of elderly people as a result of longer life spans and low birth rates.

In two decades, an estimated 20% of the population will be 65 years or older, compared to 9.3% at present.

To better prepare themselves for the demographic explosion, hospitals in the affluent city-state of five million people are using the latest available technology to augment its limited pool of health personnel.

Chan Kay Fei, head of Rehabilitation Medicine at the government-run Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which houses CART, said therapists on their own "cannot meet this rising need of the aging population."

"So technology, I feel, could be the multiplier," Chan said, adding that both therapists and patients benefit from the increasing use of robotic equipment and videogame-inspired software.

"Robotics reduce or eliminate physical loading upon our therapists. It creates an interesting and interactive environment which offers consistency and objectivity to the treatment program," he said. Using the machines, therapists are able to precisely monitor the patient's progress and calibrate the machines accordingly.

The "Lokomat" gait trainer shows a movie-like avatar, controlled by the patient's movements, walking around a virtual world collecting medals. Such machines are particularly suited for countries with rapidly aging populations, said Bala Rajaratnam, a lecturer at the School of Health Sciences at Nanyang Polytechnic. "It allows therapists to use smart technology to both empower clients to take control over their recovery as well as maximize therapy time," he said.

Another machine, the "Armeo" robotic arm, is among the high-tech exercise stations now being used at the Centre for Advanced Rehabilitation Therapeutics (CART), described by its administrators as the most advanced facility of its kind in Asia.

Future physical therapists at Bala's school also use videogame machines such as the Nintendo Wii to help patients recover more quickly than they would using conventional methods.

Other medical institutions in Singapore such as KK Women's and Children's Hospital as well as Changi General Hospital are also using videogames as part of their repertoire of therapy.

"The targeted patient population includes people with neurological conditions such as stroke, acquired brain injury and Parkinson's Disease," said Jean Tan, a senior physiotherapist at Changi.

Younger patients, including accident victims and those with congenital motor problems, also benefit from therapy robots and videogames.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011

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