Cooroy hospital robotic rehab program uses virtual-reality technology to help stroke patients – ABC News


A small hospital in the Sunshine Coast hinterland is leading a new era in rehabilitation in south-west Queensland by using a suite of gaming and virtual-reality machines to treat patients.

Doctors and patients say the comprehensive “robotics rehab” program is having positive results in patients who have not progressed with traditional therapy in years.

Maroochydore’s Gerard Fitzgerald is one of them. The 72-year-old suffered a stroke four years ago and, despite years of traditional rehabilitation and daily exercise, his recovery had plateaued.

“My left side sort of locks up or it does silly things like pins and needles,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

“It makes it hard for me to walk and things like that.”

He is now attending robotics rehabilitation sessions three times a week.

The innovative technology, which was developed in Austria, challenges a patient’s physical and cognitive ability in a virtual world.

Virtual reality brings real-life gains

Cooroy’s 110-year-old Eden Private Hospital is pioneering integrated robotics rehabilitation in the state’s south-west, after installing four state-of-the-art machines a few months ago.

Patients either sit at a large touch-controlled screen, stand on a sensor pad for lower-limb activities or use hand-held controls to manoeuvre through games to improve upper-limb movement.

A older man with red hair standing with his arms on a robotics machine while a physiotherapist stands next to him
Gerard Fitzgerald is using robotics rehab to aid his stroke recovery, with help from Allied Health manager John Turnbull.(ABC News: Tara Cassidy)

The exercises also aid in intellectual rehabilitation, as they target the brain’s neuroplasticity to improve cognitive outcomes.

Allied Health Manager John Turnbull said the robotics machines could assist a wide range of patients, including those who had suffered strokes, to those with cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

“You’re seeing in real life that your limb can’t do much, but [when] you apply that to a different virtual reality, you can see it does more.”

Mr Turnbull said one of the machines could even manipulate a patient’s hand, until they were able to perform the exercises on their own.

“Once the patient can start using that hand, even just slightly, the machine can back off and let you start to do the rest of the movement,” he said.

A woman with dark mid-length hair, wearing glasses and a black dress
Dr Phoebe Slape says the robotics machines provide more stimulation and repetition of movement than traditional rehabilitation.(ABC News: Tara Cassidy)

Doctor Phoebe Slape said robotics rehab patients received a greater volume of therapy over a shorter period of time.

“That’s really important, so more stimulation, more repetition of movement,” Dr Slape said.

Mental and physical ability tested

Paraplegic Sydney MacRae, from Kia Ora, is using the technology in his recovery from shoulder reconstruction surgery.

He said it was different from any other type of rehabilitation he had done in the past.

A man in a wheelchair sitting in front of a large computer screen smiling at the camera
Sydney MacRae is recovering from shoulder reconstruction surgery.(ABC News: Tara Cassidy)

“They work in with one another to get the benefit out of it. I find it quite amazing actually.

“I’ve got to learn to use my muscles in my shoulder totally differently to what I did before and this is where this equipment will make a big difference.”

The robotics equipment gives immediate data to therapists, who can then decide when to re-test a patient’s function in real-life scenarios.

“We don’t have to wait three, four, five weeks — we reassess the patient to see are we making any affect,” Mr Turnbull said.

The robotics will be trialled on paediatric patients with neurological conditions from next year, to help improve their physical and learning abilities.

The hospital is working with four Sunshine Coast schools to develop a program to help children with learning disabilities.

Mr Turnbull said the program would give children “something that’s motivating that they can relate to”.