Mind / Iron
by Bryan Bergeron, Editor ;
Telemedicine Robot Cleared for Launch
In addition to often fierce competition in the marketplace, medical device
developers face the hurdle of obtaining clearance from the US Food and Drug
Administration (FDA). The clearance process of proving effectiveness for certain
medical conditions or settings can take years and a small fortune. The first
autonomous remote presence robot to survive the federal gauntlet is the
Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant, or RP-VITA.
The RP-VITA — a combination of technologies from In Touch Health and
iRobot (the maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner) — is intended to allow a
physician to support the care of a patient remotely. That is (unlike, say, the
holographic doctor on Voyager which interacts directly with his patients), the
RP-VITA supports a nurse or other healthcare professional in assessing a patient.
For example, the armless robot can’t hold a stethoscope to a patient’s
chest, but it can direct a nurse to hold the stethoscope. The physician on the
other end of the connection can listen to the sound and presumably make a
diagnosis — even from the golf course.
Compared with the previous generation of In Touch medical robots – which
I’ve used – this latest incarnation sports a sleeker body and a greatly improved
user interface. There’s an Apple iPad mounted front and center on the robot,
meaning that any child over three or four can probably transform the robot into
a Series 800 Terminator with a few finger presses. There’s a camera and LCD
panel mounted at head level that provides two-way visual communications.
Fundamentally, the technology is essentially that of a medical kiosk — the
kind often found in malls and in larger companies — but on an intelligent,
moveable platform. So, what’s the big deal, from a practical perspective? Why
don’t nurses carry an iPad around and call in to the doctor whenever there’s a
problem? Or put everything on a cart?
I assume the folks at In Touch Health and iRobot would be quick to point
out that their unit can be more easily shared by the staff in an ER. It’s also
difficult for a patient to stuff the robot into a pocket and walk out – definitely
not the case with an iPad.
Technical features and quirks aside, the release of the RF-VITA illustrates
what I believe is key to a disruptive technology. Notice that the robot isn’t
positioned as a nurse or doctor killer, destined to replace humans. Instead — as
with the successful early expert systems and surgical robots — this robot is
positioned as a tool to be used by clinicians. Such human-in-the-loop
technologies are less likely to be sabotaged by those whose jobs are at risk.
Is this robot destined to become the delivery platform of choice for modern
physicians? Probably not. But it does mark the start of an evolutionary change
in the practice of medicine, and a foothold for other robotic platforms in the
hospital, nursing home, and school clinic. Moreover, it’s potentially a harbinger
of a telepresence robot industry that enables virtual multitasking. One robot
attends classes while another stands around a conference room table,
discussing the merits of a new product launch.
Meanwhile, the operator, wearing a white dress shirt, tie, and plaid shorts,
tries to look both studious and earnest, looking into his iPad camera while
watching the waves crash into the beach. SV
6 SERVO 06.2013
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