Roblog: Thanks Dr. Robot

Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robotics. If science fiction comes true and an impending robot apocalypse is real, it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Thursday for a new blog of robot rants.

If you hadn’t realized yet, robots are becoming increasingly common in our lives, even in highly specialized places. Since the first robot surgery in 1998, robots can be found in many hospitals helping doctors to do their jobs better by providing them with better tools, better record keeping abilities, and more powerful imaging techniques. Thanks to programs like Skype and FaceTime and the rise of teleconferencing for business, long-distance video communication is no longer particularly novel either. Combine the two into an autonomous robot, however, and you’ve got something that hopes to change the world.

Brought you by iRobot, the company that brought you the Roomba automated vaccuum, and InTouch Health, the RP-VITA robot is the newest in a series of telepresence robots built for hospitals. The robot has two screens, one that shows a video feed of the doctor and the other that allows a nurse to input information and interact with the robot. Through the robot’s camera and microphone, the doctor to look at, hear, and speak with the nurse or the patient without actually being in the room, or even the country. The robot also has navigational abilities like iRobot’s Roomba vaccuum, that allow it to move through the hospital autonomously without being directed. The FDA reccently approved the robot for use in hospitals to do a wide variety of tasks, including pre- and post-operative care, critical care examinations, and neurological, cardiovascular, and psychological assesements.

These robots could be rolling out to hospitals within months and changing the way we think about a doctor’s visit. There’s no doubt that the telemedicine system has clear benefits. After the intial cost of the robot, the RP-VITA system can actually save hospitals money, by helping to make their operations more efficient. Doctors can sit comfortably at their home or office and not have to worry about commute times. The robot also speeds up the process of taking medical records, as well as makes them more readily available and easy to read. With sensing equipment hooked up to the robot, records are even made more accurate. In the future, the robot could allow expert specialists to diagnose patients abroad or in rural areas where highly specific, specialized medical care is difficult to find.

On the other hand, being hospitalized is already a difficult experience. While the ability to take accurate measurements and be efficient are desirable qualities in a doctor, they aren’t the whole package. The best doctors are those with good bedside manner, who can help a patient to feel at ease in a sterile hospital bed. While a robot doctor might, on paper, be able to make all the same observations a doctor in the room, it seems like the patient’s hospital experience could be degraded in the name of efficiency and cost savings.

While the RP-VITA robot is impressive and can certainly improve the daily operations in a hospital, it remains to be seen whether the robot can actually improve the hospital experience. Until nurses can gain experience acting as a liason between the robot doctor and the patient, the robot is likely only to make the cold, stressful hospital seem worse for patients in need of care. Although the doctor’s smiling face on the screen is a step up from a metal faced robot, there is some work to be done on making interacting with a robot seem less forced and more comfortable. Taking doctors out of the room and having people interact with a robot about something as personal as their health is a big leap for medicine, and it’s one that many patients might not be ready for.

About Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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