When the robot checks the thyroid gland

Robot of Furhat

Merck wants to raise awareness of thyroid disease with the use of Petra.

(Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

FrankfortIt is a little pale, but it certainly attracts attention. Smooth facial features, friendly eyes, soft voice. And when Petra asks her counterpart for health problems, she is in the thing. "Hi, I'm Petra, the first robot to do a checkup," she says in English.

To go directly to the media res. Age? Weight? Medication? That we sometimes feel soft, running or falling hair, the chatbot asks, among other things. Because Petra has the task in a few minutes to find out if the counterpart may be disrupted for thyroid function.

The pharmaceutical company Merck, based in Darmstadt, has programmed for this task Petra, and more precisely the Swedish subsidiary of Merck. Gustav Aspengren is entrusted with the pilot project. Petra means "pre-screening experience with the help of a robot evaluation", a precautionary survey assisted by robot. This was programmed by the Swedish company Furhat Robotics.

Merck wants to raise awareness of thyroid disease with the use of Petra. "These diseases are often not detected and many doctors do not have the topic on the agenda," said Aspengren. An estimated 200 million people around the world are affected, but about 60% are unaware of the disease. And since the symptoms are not specific, the diagnosis of the disease usually takes up to four years.

According to a recent survey conducted by Strategy & PwC's Strategy Advisory Service with 120 pharmaceutical executives, prevention will play a much bigger role in the healthcare market. Pharmaceutical executives surveyed expect a significant increase in spending over the coming years from 2018, particularly in the areas of diagnostics, prevention and digital health.


The share of these three zones will increase from 7% to 23% by 2030, more than three times more in absolute terms, to reach $ 2.7 trillion, or about $ 2.4 billion.

Petra could help more people check if they have thyroid disease, says Aspengren. Because the experience with Furhat robots has shown that talking busts arouse the curiosity of passers-by and that the will to dialogue with the machine is great.

However, Petra does not make a diagnosis. In case of obvious symptoms, she recommends a visit to the doctor.

The Merck project screening software comes from YourMD, which is represented worldwide with its diagnostic applications. According to the company, more than 24,000 users have already participated in the digital control of symptoms of thyroid disorders. Nearly half of them reported symptoms common to thyroid disorders.

Merck hopes for the United States and Asia

In order for Petra to provide as little false positive or false negative symptom rating as possible, the Merck pilot project team has continuously optimized the software over the past two years.

Merck's director, Aspengren, can imagine installing Petra robots around the world at major medical, clinical or pharmacy centers. Next year, the project will be officially launched. Merck provides this service for free and hopes for refinancing if more people are prescribed the company's thyroid medications.

Merck offers drugs for the treatment of hypothyroidism, which affects about 17% of women and 8% of men at 60 years of age.

The United States and Asia are particularly interesting regions for the Merck Petra project. While in Europe, thyroid patients are generally well cared for, there is still a lot of potential in other parts of the world. In appearance, Petra can adapt anywhere, be it Asian, African, Eurasian, the bust has more than 50 different faces and voices, men and women.

In addition, Petra will not have communication problems, the computer speaks multiple languages. Thyroid screening is already available in ten languages. If there is a problem with voice recognition, the dialog can also be conducted via a touch screen. Incidentally, the subject of data protection is a top priority at Petra – the personal data of the interlocutors are not saved.

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