When There’s a Robot in the House, er, Hospital? [Slide Show]A Florida trauma center tests the use of a mobile robot to deliver telemedicine
By Larry Greenemeier
Scientificamerican:December 4, 2008
Telemedicine has caught on over the past several years as an effective way to bring patients and specialists together via the magic of video conferencing. Unfortunately, most telemedicine setups require the patient to be in a room equipped with a computer, camera, microphone and monitor, so that specialists can remotely assess his or her condition. Could robots be the answer, providing both patient care and a view for specialists checking in from afar?
The William Lehman Injury Research Center (WLIRC) in Miami for a year has been experimenting with a budding type of telemedicine that uses a robot to let videoconferencing go mobile, allowing a specialist working from a remote location to see a patient (and for the patient to see the physician) from the moment he or she checks in for surgery through recovery.
A typical scenario would unfold as such: A patient is brought to the Ryder Trauma Center at the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital (where the WLIRC doctors work) by ambulance or helicopter. While the patient is en route, the trauma center checks to see if there is a specialist on site who can treat the patient’s specific injuries. If there are none available and the specialist on call is unable to make it to Ryder in time, staff at the center wheel out the RP-7, made by InTouch Technologies, Inc., a Santa Barbara, Calif., medical robotics technology company. Once a specialist is located, he or she uses a laptop or PC to remotely connect via wireless broadband with the robot. After the connection is made, the specialist is able to control the robot’s movement, possibly even meeting the patient at the door. From there, the specialist can autonomously drive the robot to operating rooms, intensive care units and patients’ bedsides so he or she can monitor those patients as well as instruct nurses and residents.
View a slideshow of the RP-7 in action
The WLIRC doctors and physicians from the U.S. Army’s Trauma Training Center (working at the Ryder Trauma Center) have been testing the RP-7, to see if the above scenario is realistic. The 200-pound, (90.7-kilogram) 67-inch- (1.7-meter-) tall metal medical man glides along on three spherical balls (rather than wheels) at a top speed of four miles (6.4 kilometers) per hour. As the Army’s Web site points out, it “looks vaguely like one of the Daleks [robots] from Doctor Who with a view screen mounted on top.”
Ryder is the only “level 1” trauma center in Miami–Dade County, which makes it difficult to find specialists to weigh in on all cases, particularly within the critical first 60 minutes after an injury, says Jeffrey Augenstein, WLIRC’s director and the RP-7 project’s principal investigator. “There is a shortage of trauma specialists in this country,” he says. “You need to have a plan B to bring expertise from the outside to the point of care, where decisions often involve life and death.”