Robot on Call

April 10, 2008 8:59:59 PM PDT
Don't be surprised if your next face-to-face visit in the hospital is with a robot. It's touted as cutting edge medicine on wheels that could save your life.

Minutes count when an emergency room patient appears to be having a stroke. An assessment from a specialist is crucial. But sometimes that doctor isn't available in the flesh. Now, a suburban hospital is one of the first in the area to use what might be the next best thing: a mobile robot that's part doctor, part machine.

The concept of robots helping humans is no longer just futuristic fun. The robot is now playing a more serious role in medicine.

Doctor Jerry Newman is really a member of the staff at Central DuPage Hospital in suburban Winfield. His name tag doesn't change. But his face does, depending on who's at the controls operating this robot from a remote location.

"We can actually see what the patient is doing we can examine the patient ourselves rather than rely on other people to do the examination," said Dr. Henry C. Echiverri, neurologist, Central DuPage Hospital.

There are times in emergency situations Echiverri needs to be in two places at once. And that's when he flips open his laptop and wheels into action, joining other medical specialists at a patient's bedside.

"The resolution on this I can go down to the detail, body parts, you can really see what is going on, you can see the pupils, tonsils; you can even attack a stethoscope and listen to their heartbeat if you want to," said Echiverri.

A couple months ago, Jim Torma and his wife Janie met the robot face to face.

"I heard them in the hall say 'Call the robot,'" said Janie Torma.

While recuperating from a quadruple bypass, Jim started to show signs of a stroke. Physicians needed Dr. Echiverri's assessment fast. But he wasn't around. By activating the robot, Dr. Echiverri was able to asses Jim's condition even though he wasn't physically there.

"I was a little out of it, but I was cognizant of something going around and I did see the robot," said Jim Torma.

"Excellent thing, it was wonderful; it was very comforting," said Janie Torma.

Technically known as the RP-7 robotic system, the device is about five feet tall and is equipped with cameras, a video monitor for a head and a microphone. The doctor can see and speak to the patient. Sound and video of the patient is simultaneously broadcast back to the doctor. Using a joystick, the doctor can move the robot around the bedside, even zoom in to check vital signs.

"When we examine a patient and decide a stroke neurologist needs to be involved this is one more adjunct one more step better than the phone," said Dr. Joseph Boyle, ER Physician, Central DuPage Hospital.

It may take time for patients, even hospital members, to get used to the robot on call. But doctors say its technology that's proving its worth and helping save lives.

"Patients are very happy with it. The feedback I get is they have the sense of security they are being watched 24/7 even if I am not there," said Boyle.

Central DuPage says the robot is bridging a gap, not replacing hands-on care. Right now, it's mainly being used for stroke assessment in emergency situations. The robot is almost always accompanied by a real live medical employee, who can help with the doctor's assessment of a patient.

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