Robots let doctors ‘beam’ into remote hospital locations

Dr Alan Shatzel, of the Mercy Telehealth Network, on the RP-VITA robot as he waits to confer with Dr Alex Nee at Mercy San Juan Hospital. Pic: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

The doctor isn’t in, but he can still see you now.

Remote presence robots are allowing physicians to “beam” themselves into hospitals to diagnose patients and offer medical advice during emergencies.

A growing number of hospitals in California and other states are using tele-presence robots to expand access to medical specialists, especially in rural areas.

These mobile video-conferencing machines move on wheels and stand about five feet tall, with a large screen that projects a doctor’s face. They feature cameras, microphones and speakers that allow physicians and patients to see and talk to each other.

Dignity Health, which runs Arizona, California and Nevada hospitals, began using the telemedicine machines to diagnose patients suspected of suffering strokes — when every minute is crucial to prevent serious brain damage.

The San Francisco-based health care provider now uses the telemedicine robots in emergency rooms and intensive-care units at about 20 California hospitals..

“Regardless of where the patient is located, we can be at their bedside in several minutes,” said Dr Alan Shatzel, medical director of the Mercy Telehealth Network. “Literally, we compress time and space with this technology.”

Dignity Health is one of several hospital chains that recently began using RP-VITA, which was jointly developed by InTouch Health and iRobot Corp. It’s approved for hospital use by the US Food and Drug Administration.

“Hospitals are now using this type of technology in order to leverage the specialists that they have even better and more efficiently,” said Dr Yulun Wang, CEO of Santa Barbara-based InTouch Health.

Nearly 1,000 hospitals in the US and abroad have installed InTouch telemedicine devices, including about 50 RP-VITA robots launched in May, according to company officials. The company rents out the RP-VITA for $5,000 a month.

When a doctor is needed at a remote hospital location, he can log into the RP-VITA on-site by using a computer, laptop or iPad. The robot has an auto-drive function that allows it to navigate its way to the patient’s room, using sensors to avoid bumping into things or people.

Once inside the hospital room, the doctor can see, hear and speak to the patient, and have access to clinical data and medical images. The physician can’t touch the patient, but there is always a nurse or medical assistant on-site to assist.


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