Robots: They're Everywhere!

Published: Thursday, Mar 06, 2008
Science fiction stories about robots usually fall into one of two categories: “good robots” or “bad robots.” In the future, we’re told, the machines will either be our obsequious servants, quietly following our orders according to an ingrained code of ethics, or our malevolent adversaries, hell-bent on eradicating humankind. What most authors seem to have missed is the future we actually got. Call it “ubiquitous robots.”

Although a technophile may brag about the Roomba vacuuming the house or the Aibo playing with the kids, these novelties are new arrivals in a world already fi lled with automation.  Robots build our cars, bake our bread, negotiate our stock trades, and even bomb our enemies. Increasingly, they also help us treat the sick.

Indeed, the most surprising news about medical robotics is not what’s just around the corner, but what’s already in use, often without physicians even noticing. That’s because many of the robots now infi ltrating hospitals and clinics bear a closer resemblance to power tools and appliances than latter-day C3POs. As these systems become more widespread, though, they are bringing about wholesale changes in the way many specialists practice medicine.

Robot Rounds

The medical robot that looks most like a science fi ction character is undoubtedly the RP-7, a “remote presence” system from InTouch Health of Santa Barbara, CA. Resembling a cross between Max Headroom and R2-D2, the RP-7 is a mobile videoconferencing system optimized for physicians. A flat-screen monitor at head level displays the physician controlling the machine, and a motorized base allows it to roll through hospital corridors, interacting with staff and visiting patients.  Seated at the other end of a broadband Internet connection, the doctor can be across town or on the other side of the world, seeing and hearing whatever the RP-7 encounters, and talking through the unit’s builtin speaker. “What happens when a physician uses our platform is not any different than if they were there in person with their hands in their pockets,” says Michael Chan, executive vice president of sales for InTouch. 

In 2005, the University of California, Los Angeles was among the first institutions to deploy a clinical remote presence system. Using the RP-7’s predecessor, the RP-6, intensive care specialists at UCLA were able to visit their patients even while attending conferences out of town.  Since then, the technology’s popularity has skyrocketed. Of nearly 150 hospitals now using the RP-7, Chan says “we’ve probably contracted about 40–50% of those customers in the last 12 to 18 months.” Th e systems are especially useful for calling emergency consultations with far-fl ung specialists. In Michigan, for example, a network of 29 hospitals now uses remote presence as an integral part of the Michigan Stroke Network.

When a patient presents with stroke-like symptoms at any of the network hospitals’ emergency rooms, the attending physician can call in one of the network’s stroke specialists, who can reach the patient’s bedside—virtually—in a matter of minutes. Th at is particularly important for stroke, the nation’s number-three killer, for which diagnosis is often tricky and the window for eff ective treatment is only a few hours.  Other hospitals have also adopted the platform for a wide range of specialties, typically paying about $5,000–$6,000 per month to rent the roving unit rather than buying it. The physician’s remote station, meanwhile, can be any off -the-shelf laptop or desktop computer that meets InTouch’s specifi cations, plus a joystick to control the robot’s movements. Th e company also sells turnkey systems with the necessary software already installed, and outlines the specifi cations for broadband connection speeds and fi rewall security. 

With videoconferencing systems already ubiquitous in the corporate world, and many computers already equipped for video chats, some hospitals and clinics might be tempted to build a cheaper remote presence system on their own. “There are a number of people trying to do things like that,” Chan concedes, but he points out that the RP-7 off ers several important advantages over the alternatives; for one thing, the company’s software is designed around healthcare, making it easy to review paper or electronic charts, look at scans, and interact with patients and staff in diff erent rooms. Chan also cautions that maintaining the technical infrastructure for a secure, HIPAAcompliant videoconferencing system is not trivial. “With our product, that’s all taken care of,” he says.

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