‘Robot doctors’ help patients get access to care anywhere

Tori Floyd
 Robots Let Doctors Beam Into Hospitals
Telepresence robots allow physicians to "beam" themselves into hospitals to diagnose patients and offer medical advice during emergencies. Dignity Health now uses them at most of its 32 California hospitals. (Nov. 18)

Thanks to the growing use of ‘telemedicine,’ doctors are able to help patients in remote areas by virtually attending to them. Whether it’s because the patient is in an area without doctors, or because they need a specialist located inconveniently far away, technology is increasingly closing the distance between them.

Dignity Health, a San Francisco-based healthcare provider with hospitals in several states, has begun to use ‘robot doctors’ in order to better serve patients when the correct specialist is not available. About five years ago, The Associated Press reports, these machines were being used to help diagnose stroke victims. Now, the company uses them in about 20 different California hospitals to better connect patients and specialists in neurology, cardiology, neonatology, pediatrics and mental health.

“Hospitals are now using this kind of technology to leverage the specialists that they have even better and more efficiently,” Yulun Wang, CEO of InTouch Health, told AP (via one of the company’s robots).

InTouch Health is just one company using these telepresence machines to better connect with patients in situations where a doctor may not be able to see them physically. Doctors who have used the machines say that they are extremely useful in increasing the number of people a doctor can see while they’re on duty.

[ Related: VGo robot helps boy waiting for lung transplant stay in classroom ]

Another company making these telepresence machines, VGo, are seeing their robots appear on the sidelines at football games. In August, the Mayo Clinic tested out having a VGo machine on the sidelines at Northern Arizona University football games to check for concussions with a medical expert in the field.

While still a relative rarity in most medical facilities here in Canada, there are situations where these digital interactions between patient and doctor are happening , albeit not yet with a telepresence robot. In Ottawa, a satellite program of The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre’s Operational Stress Injury clinic works to help veterans coping with PTSD. For those who are unable to attend the meetings in person, the centre is experimenting with treatment remotely via computer, The Ottawa Citizen reports. Treatment of this kind can take from six months to three years, so having the option to connect with patients in their homes can make a huge difference.

The downside of this technology, unfortunately, is an obvious one: A virtual doctor can’t touch a patient, preventing them from checking for changes in body composition, or even asking “does this hurt?” For an ongoing medical condition that needs regular visual monitoring, such as with stroke victims, or for emergency diagnostics, these robot doctors could make a world of difference.

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