Thursday, October 19, 2006

Health Care Robots Beam Doctors to Hospitals

Say "Ahh," Will Robinson. Your doctor is a robot. No, not one of those flailing garbage cans with dryer vent arms and Vise Grips for hands. This robo-doc is really your real doctor, available to examine and treat you thanks to the miracle of "Virtually There" technology.

Virtually There technology is a new form of remote telepresence being offered by InTouch Health of Santa Barbara, CA. It's in the news because nearly two dozen Michigan hospitals are installing InTouch Health's RP-7 robots as part of a new stroke treatment program they call the Michigan Stroke Network. Robots treating strokes rather than causing them? That's the latest thinking in the world of telemedicine.

The driving issue is that neurologists are in short supply. Patients arrive at emergency rooms showing symptoms that might or might not be caused by a stroke. Decisions have to be made quickly. Strokes are especially dangerous because diagnosis and treatment needs to happen as soon as possible to avoid severe disability or even death. Ideally, there would always be at least one neurologist in every emergency room around the clock. But such is not the case, especially in the smaller hospitals.

That's where the RP-7 steps in, or rather rolls in. RP-7 has a large video screen that serves as a face. It also has digital video cameras and microphones, pan-tilt-zoom (PZT) for the head assembly, wireless communications, and a drive system with collision avoidance. This puts it way ahead of conventional video conferencing systems.

Video conferencing has long been the basis of telemedicine, also called remote medicine. These systems installed in patients' homes or remote medical centers allow doctors to consult from a distance and at least converse with the patient and other health care providers. Telemedicine also includes being able to remotely read instruments such as EKG heart monitors. As broadband Internet connections proliferate, the opportunities for remote health monitoring, diagnosis and treatment expand.

RP-7 is also designed to do more than allow specialists to observe and chat with patients. The system is designed to capture images from EKG strips and light boxes, and connect to medical instruments such as the digital stethoscope, otoscope, or pulse oximer. Data streams can then be monitored by physicians at distant hospitals, from their home offices, or even while sipping a Latte at a coffee shop.

Doctors can drive the RP-7 robot remotely, although its unlikely they'll be racing them down the hospital corridors in the wee hours. Even negotiating the often crowded hospital environment can be trickier than pursuing an interesting rock on Mars. To make this easier, the robots use a Holonomic drive that runs on three spherical balls rather than wheels to easily maneuver in tight spaces. The SenseArray System 360 has infrared collision avoidance sensors positioned around the waist and base of the robot.

So don't be surprised if you hear the soothing voice of your doctor, only to look up to find him or her smiling at you through a monitor screen from a thousand miles away. The telemedicine robots will give you access to specialists and perhaps someday your personal physician from anywhere you happen to be. The next logical step should be to add arms, and hopefully heaters to warm up those traditionally icy metal robot fingers.

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