In a medical emergency, seconds count. But if the doctor needed is in another part of the hospital or even another part of town, then those seconds can stretch dangerously. If only the doctor could be in two places at once, then countless lives could be saved. This is one of the most promising applications in the emerging field of telepresence robotics and RP-VITA (Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant) - a joint development by the robotics firm iRobot and telemedicine company InTouch Health - is aiming to bring this closer to reality.
The idea of a telepresence robot doctor is surprisingly old. Popular Science editor Hugo Gernsback predicted “radio doctors” in the 1920s complete with remotely operated instruments, and in the 1950s he updated this to the “teledoctor," which envisioned patients renting two-way televisions with robot arms so their doctors could make house calls.
iRobot and InTouch Health are working under a partnership and joint development and licensing agreement to develop the RP-VITA, which will allow doctors and other health specialists to not only visit patients remotely, but to robotically navigate through wards, access patient records and even carry out examinations. Before partnering with iRobot, InTouch Health developed their own medical telepresence robot called RP-6 that we reported on in 2004.
The RP-VITA is a combination of iRobot’s Robot Ava mobile robotics platform and the InTouch Telemedicine System. This produces what the partners refer to as a an "expandable telemedicine technology platform."
The idea is that the RP-VITA would allow doctors or specialists to be on the scene as fast as possible with clinical information at hand, and the ability to interact with patients and staff in a relatively natural fashion via a television link. This would be particularly important in intensive care units or casualty wards where diagnosing and treating strokes, head injuries and other critical conditions must be done as quickly as possible.
Because doctors don’t have the time to train on complex robots, the RP-VITA is designed to be as easy as possible to use. It's controlled by a simple iPad interface and has an enhanced autonomous navigation capability. That means it can be sent where needed with a single click. Using its Obstacle Detection Obstacle Avoidance (ODOA) system, the robot can proceed to its location on its own, navigating the hospital quickly, safely and accurately.
The robot allows doctors and staff real-time access to important clinical data from the patient’s online files, but it also can transmit live information by means of its built-in electronic stethoscope or by linking to diagnostic devices such as otoscopes and ultrasound machines.
The RP-VITA is being unveiled to the public at the InTouch Health 7th Annual Clinical Innovations Forum (July 26-28, 2012) in Santa Barbara, CA.
“While this represents our first foray into the healthcare market, the RP-VITA represents a robust platform,and we foresee many future opportunities in adjacent markets," said Colin Angle, Chairman and CEO of iRobot. "Robots like the RP-VITA and iRobot Ava are easy to use and able to autonomously navigate real world environments. They lend themselves to a wide variety of applications in home, retail, industrial and other settings.”