The Emergence of Robotic Medical Check-Ups

BY LIN DAVID

Have you ever lain in a hospital bed while the physician was on a screen talking to you? For most patients, the answer is no. Most of the time, physicians only visit their patients when scheduled. However, with revolutionary technology, robotic medical systems are able to perform routine checks on patients as well as organize the patient’s charts and medical history — all without physical intervention.

In today’s society, there is an increasing shortage of doctors and nurses as well as increasing costs for healthcare. This is exactly why several hospitals and healthcare systems are investing their money in robotic systems for medical check-ups, surgery and other procedures. One series of such medical robots is the collection of Remote Presence robots created by InTouch Health, a company that works on providing acute care telemedicine solutions. This series consists of five Remote Presence (RP) robots (RP-VITA, RP-7i, RP-Lite, RP-Vantage, and RP-Xpress) that allow physicians to “easily perform real-time consults with patients and other physicians and healthcare providers using secure CS interfaces supported by an industry leading, cloud-based SureCONNECT network infrastructure,” according to the InTouch Health website. One of the robots in the series, RP-VITA, is used in Mercy San Juan Medical Center’s neuro-intensive care unit. This robot has the ability to drive itself around the halls of the hospital and can be controlled by a laptop, desktop computer or even an iPad.

Dr. Alan Shatzel, a neurologist at the Mercy Neurological Institute, mentioned that, without these robots, off-site physicians are unable to see their patients; this hinders the physicians’ ability to make important decisions for their patients in times of immediate need. Not only do they respond to situations in timely fashion, but these robots also provide the medical expertise normally lacking in the physician’s absence. Even if the patient and physician are oceans apart, they can remain connected through robotic technology supported by cloud-based software. This technology is also extremely useful for rural, small-town hospitals and clinics. It can be lifesaving for patients who may have just suffered from a stroke or heart attack and are in need of immediate diagnosis. Every year, thousands of individuals die in the intensive care unit due to misdiagnosis. If doctors are able to evaluate patients remotely, it can eliminate the need to transport patients to a larger hospital in the city. “This has proven to be tremendously valuable,” Shatzel said. Shatzel did mention that the robots should only be used as a tool and cannot replace the doctors — it is essential that physicians still visit their patients. These robots are meant to make it more convenient for physicians to check in with their patients more often and for patients to gain access to physicians who are not present in the hospital. It usually takes under six minutes for the medical staff to page a doctor, get him or her connected to the Remote Presence robot, and make it available to the patient in need.

Another example of robots in healthcare today is the da Vinci surgical robot. The robot consists of four robotic arms, a high definition 3-D viewing system (with up to 10x magnification) and “EndoWrist” technology. This technology allows for a larger range of motion while reducing the risk posed by a surgeon’s natural hand tremors. The surgeon sits at the control console located near the patient, usually inside the operating room. He or she uses hand controls to manipulate the instruments and manipulate the da Vinci surgical robot. The robot facilitates complex surgeries by using a minimally invasive approach; it is most commonly used to perform prostatectomies, the removal of the prostate gland.

Many critics of this medical technology propose that the cost of the system is too high and not worth the long-run expense. The opposition argues in defense of the investors: Despite the initial economic investment, systematic and procedural costs will eventually decrease as these robot systems become more commonplace.  Overall, the surgical robot technology is more precise and, with further advancement in the future, will undoubtedly become a mainstay in hospital operating rooms.

The ultimate goal for the future would be to combine the telemedicine technology with the technology used for the da Vinci surgical robot. This would allow doctors from around the globe to aid, oversee and train medical staff from distant locations. This can be tremendously valuable for time-sensitive decisions and operations or when patients simply do not have access to healthcare experts in their area. Without a doubt, this technology is going to become more prevalent in hospitals across the world, ultimately raising the standard of health care for all.

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