RoboDoc will see you now

October 3, 2003

Hospital information technology has found a unique way of responding to the acute shortage of healthcare workers. A new high-tech robot now under evaluation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, "virtually" connects physicians with their patients. Touted as the

Hospital information technology has found a unique way of responding to the acute shortage of healthcare workers. A new high-tech robot now under evaluation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, "virtually" connects physicians with their patients.

Touted as the world's first remote-presence robot by its manufacturer, InTouch Health of Goleta, CA, RoboDoc comes equipped with a computer screen head, video camera eyes, speaker mouth, and microphone ears.

It resembles R2D2 more than it does most physicians and works something like a video game on wheels, complete with a joystick for guiding it through hospital corridors.

"Physicians directing the robot see what the robot sees and hear what the robot hears," said Dr. Louis Kavoussi, a professor of urology and a pioneer in robotic surgery.

At bedside, patients see and talk to their doctor, whose face is displayed on a flat monitor sitting atop the robot's torso. The unit is connected to the Internet via broadband wireless network.

"Many healthcare facilities and long-term care communities lack resources to maintain a staff of medical specialists," Kavoussi said.

RoboDoc could potentially fill this vacuum by enabling remote medical experts to cyber-consult conveniently with physicians, residents, nursing staff, and patients.

Kavoussi said it's also easy to envision radiology-related capabilities for RoboDoc.

"Radiology would be very helpful," he said. "You could simply patch in radiologists explaining their interpretations of imaging studies to referring physicians and patients."

Digital images would be loaded directly from the hospital PACS.

While robots aren't meant to replace the bedside warmth that physicians provide in person, they can augment regular visits. They can also be useful when it's not practical for physicians to be physically present: in military operations, natural or bioterrorist disasters, at sea, or in remote or underserved locations.

At Hopkins, RoboDoc is being used to check on patients between rounds. Patients love it, according to Kavoussi.

"During these visits, we ask patients how they feel, inspect their surgical sites for proper healing, and answer questions," he said. "I'm surprised how much patients enjoy remote video interactions via the robot."

RoboDoc acceptance supports earlier Hopkins studies that found patients like using teleconferencing technology (in addition to traditional bedside visits) to communicate with their physicians.

"Any technology that facilitates physician-patient communications is welcome by both," Kavoussi said.