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The Return of Sci-Fi: Texas Hospital Patients May Soon Be Talking To Robots

Aug 18, 2007
Your doctor may soon be a robot, or so the whispers warn. Sound like something out of a bad science-fiction movie? Well, maybe you should ask whichever physician shows up on-screen of the RP-7 Remote Presence Robotic System by InTouch Technologies, a maneuverable robotic system designed to allow physicians to videoconference with their patients from remote locations.

Dr. Alex Gandsas, of Baltimore's Sinai Hospital and holder of stock options with InTouch Technologies, introduced the machine to hospital administrators as a way to closely monitor patients after the weight loss surgeries in which he specializes. Since its introduction, the length of his patients' stays has been shorter. In Gandsas' study published earlier this month in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 92 of 376 patients had additional robotic visits, and all 92 of them were medically cleared to return home faster than those who did not receive check-ins with the teleconferencing system. Shorter patient stays would be a welcome change for hospitals, health insurance companies, and patients alike -- all of which have a vested interested in sending patients home faster.

While further studies should, without a doubt, be performed by physicians who do not hold a financial interest in the technology, these preliminary results do show promise. The robotic visits were not used by Gandsas to replace his personal check-ins with patients -- only to add to them. Neither InTouch Technologies, nor Dr. Gandsas envisions the "Bari" or so it's nicknamed, as completely replacing personal visits with healthcare professionals. Instead, the joystick-controlled system, which employs cameras, a video screen, and microphone, is intended to supplement physicians' traditional visits, and to allow patients and healthcare workers to receive advice from qualified physicians and specialists when it may otherwise be impossible. Doctors may soon be able to provide their patients with additional daily check-ins and answer questions much faster, all while sitting in their own homes or while away from the area.

Sinai Hospital isn't the only one with this technology, however. In fact, robots have been in use for some time to assist with patient care, including guiding stroke patients through therapy, and helping them play video games. Many prosthetic devices are now at least partially robotic, and if it weren't for a certain amount of robotic technology, the public would not be able to communicate with such great minds as Steven Hawkins.

Johns Hopkins also has a robotic teleconferencing system to help communicate with patients who need a translator when one is not available at the hospital itself. Use of such technology could have tremendously positive effects on Texas' healthcare system -- particularly in Dallas, Houston, and Austin -- which handles a high volume of patients who do not speak English. Lack of adequate communication is a major obstacle to receiving quality healthcare for many immigrants in Texas. Lack of quality healthcare, in turn, can lead to serious public health issues, including the transmission of communicable diseases.

Approximately 120 RP-7 Remote Presence Robotic Systems are currently in use around the world, with plans to implement many more in the coming years. China is already using similar systems to help deal with the lack of medical care in rural, inaccessible areas.

Dr. Louis Kavoussi, chairman of the urology department at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, took a special interest in this new trend and conducted a study monitoring the effect of the technology on patient care. The study showed no decrease in patient satisfaction, and no increase in complications due to teleconferencing visits. The technology, Kavoussi said, is rudimentary, really, in comparison to other developing systems. The need for fear is minimal.

There are relatively few of InTouch Technologies systems available, and further studies have yet to be conducted. If robotic teleconferencing is used as a supplement to personal physicians' visits, however, it has the potential of dramatically improving many aspects of healthcare -- from how quickly patients' questions are answered, to how many visits, in total, they receive, to whether or not rural residents receive proper care, to how well (or even if) they are provided with a translator to explain their symptoms. States like Texas, in particular, with shortages of doctors and high volumes of patients who do not speak English, stand to benefit. So maybe robots in hospitals aren't something one needs to fear. In fact, they may even get your unpleasant stay over with a few days faster.

Being aware of medical technology is an important part of taking care of your health. How you take care of yourself will certainly affect you as you age, and eventually your wallet, as well.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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