Robot Visits Patients When Doctor Can't

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By ALEX DOMINGUEZ
The Associated Press
Friday, July 13, 2007; 3:16 PM

BALTIMORE -- Has it come to this? Robots standing in for doctors at the hospital patients' bedside?

Not exactly, but some doctors have found a way to use a videoconferencing robot to check on patients while they're miles from the hospital.

One is at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital. Outfitted with cameras, a screen and microphone, the joystick-controlled robot is guided into the rooms of Dr. Alex Gandsas' patients where he speaks to them as if he were right there.

"The system allows you to be anywhere in the hospital from anywhere in the world," said the surgeon, who specializes in weight-loss surgery.

Besides his normal morning and afternoon in-person rounds, Gandsas uses the $150,000 robot to visit patients at night or when problems arise. The robot can circle the bed and adjust the position of its two cameras, giving "the perception from the patient's standpoint that the doctor is there," the surgeon said.

"They love it. They'd rather see me through the robot," he said of his patients' reaction to the machine.

Gandsas presented the idea to hospital administrators as a method to more closely monitor patients following weight-loss surgery. Gandsas, an unpaid member of an advisory board for the robot's manufacturer who has stock options in the company, added that since its introduction, the length of stay has been shorter for the patients visited by the robot.

A chart-review study of 376 of the doctor's patients found that the 92 patients who had additional robotic visits had shorter hospital stays. Gandsas' study appears in the July issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

Nicknamed Bari for the bariatric surgery Gandsas practices, the RP-7 Remote Presence Robotic System by InTouch Technologies is one of a number of robotic devices finding their way into the medical world. Across town at Johns Hopkins, for example, a similar robot is used to teleconference with a translator for doctors who don't speak their patient's language. Robotic devices have also been used to guide stroke patients through therapy and help them play video games.

Michael Chan, executive vice president with InTouch Technologies, said his company's device allows physicians to "be in more than one place at once."

Speaking with Gandsas through one of the robots at company headquarters in Santa Barbara, Calif., Chan said the company envisions applications for the devices in remote locations and for dealing with shortages of health care professionals. About 120 of the robots are in use in hospitals worldwide.

Sinai patient David Williams said he appreciated the fact that Gandsas knew the details of his care.


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© 2007 The Associated Press

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