Imagine that your three-year-old daughter has a temperature of 101 and is experiencing a rash and dizziness. You’d want to know ASAP whether she was having an allergic reaction to sulfa or was suffering from meningitis. After halting her sulfa intake, she’d recover relatively quickly; if she had meningitis and remained untreated, she could die.
You’d want access to the best possible medical care – even it was provided by a specialist who’s 3,000 miles away in Northern California.
What enables this patient-physician interaction? RP-VITA (Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant). It’s the first remote-presence solution for patient care that combines the latest in autonomous navigation and mobility (from Bedford, Massachusetts-based iRobot) with the latest in telemedicine technology (from InTouch Health, located in Santa Barbara, Calif.).
According to the company, iRobot is a leader in delivering robotic technology-based solutions. InTouch Health describes itself as the leader in acute-care technologies including high-acuity consults where immediate clinical action is required. Combined, they allow for patient-physician interactions from almost any location.
Human scale; patient scale
RP-VITA is designed with patient interaction in mind. While it’s not so human-like that it would be “freaky,” it has approximately the same height, weight and eye contact as the patient who experiences the consultation via the solution’s screen. “We made it very natural so that after thirty seconds of your first interaction with the robot, you’re no longer feeling like you’re talking to a robot. You’re talking to the specialist. You’re focusing on the body language,” says Youssef Saleh, general manager of the remote presence business unit at iRobot.
Once a physician is contacted about a critical patient, they can “talk” to RP-VITA via their iPad or laptop and send the robot to the patient’s location. After the patient interaction, the robot returns to its charging station.
According to iRobot, its contributions to RP-VITA include its expertise in what it calls “autonomous navigation,” which means that its solutions interact with their environment as a human being would and have “total freedom to move and navigate in that space.” InTouch Health’s contribution is its domain expertise in healthcare, says Michael Chan, general manager of international and executive vice president of marketing at InTouch Health.
Specialized medicine multiplier
With Harvard- and Tufts-affiliated medical facilities and other community hospitals right here in Boston, we have access to the some of the best specialists in the world. That’s not the case in Columbia, Tenn. or in Wise, Va., where residents don’t have such easy access.
“In steps a platform solution, like RP-VITA,” says Chan. Because subspecialty physicians are scarce in many areas across the country, RP-VITA can serve as a “’force multiplier,’” he says.
But this isn’t Star Trek with its beaming transporter, beaming bones from location to location, says Chan. “That’s very futuristic and not available to use today. But with the power of the public Internet and the ability to create a secure, cloud-based infrastructure, a physician can use a variety of consumer-available electronic devices – like an iPad or a laptop – and connect securely into a hospital setting, whether they’re ten miles away, 100 miles away or 1,000 miles away.”
Real-world application now
The RP-VITA robot received FDA clearance in 2012. It’s now available at close to 100 hospitals in the United States and other countries around the world. U.S. medical centers using this product today include Dignity Health (Sacramento, Calif.), Kaiser Permanente (Oakland, Calif.), HCA (Nashville, Tenn.) and Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (Columbus, Ohio), among others.
Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, located in Philadelphia, Penn., is one of the largest health system adopters of the technology and does more than 1,400 patient consults through their network each year. RP-VITA allows Jefferson and other area healthcare organizations to triage patients in this way: the patients who need to come to Jefferson’s quaternary center of excellence facility are physically transported there; patients who can best be served by their community hospitals can remain there but gain access to Jefferson’s physicians via RP-VITA.
Robotics in medicine
A challenge faced in telemedicine historically has been the need for physicians to be credentialed by individual states. Chan of InTouch Health says that telemedicine holds great benefits for patients, and as with anything new, change is on the way. That includes changes in physician behavior, changes in laws, and even changes with regard to appropriate bedside manner when providing remote care.
“The train has left the station,” says Chan, referring to efforts of organizations such as the American Telemedicine Association, which was founded in 1993 to promote the use of advanced remote medical technologies into healthcare systems.
To watch RP-VITA in action, check out this video:
Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is an on-staff contributing writer for MedTech Boston. She's a political scientist by education, a writer and marketer by trade. She has written for various healthcare technology publications and also served as marketing director at several healthcare software companies in the Boston area. Cryts is an avid volunteer, pet lover and long-distance runner. Story ideas are always welcome.
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