Waiting in a doctor’s office is a drag, but docs and nurses don’t deserve all the flack they get for it. Globally, health care providers are legitimately overwhelmed and majorly over-scheduled. A survey conducted by The Physicians Foundation found that 81 percent of them are overextended or at max capacity. And it’s only going to get worse: According to projections from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the U.S. will face a 65,000 shortage of primary-care physicians by 2025. While that estimate has come under scrutiny in recent months, many of the underlying facts hold true: For instance, under the Affordable Care Act, some 6.7 million new patients are on the books and seeking routine services, such as physicals and other preventive care.
The nightmare scenario: You’re sick, but can’t find a doctor with time to see you.
We aren’t there yet, but some companies and researchers are already looking for technological alternatives to help already-practicing doctors see more patients and maximize their time. One possibility is to deploy telepresence robots that will allow clinicians to be in more places at once.
Remote patient monitoring, including checking vital signs, is certainly nothing new. NASA doctors have been keeping tabs on astronauts since the Mercury missions in the 1960s. And recently medical providers, and even insurance companies, have begun rolling out systems to allow doctors and nurses to easily check in on patients at home. At the same time, hospitals and practices are beginning to turn to robots to help off-site doctors complete rounds.
In fact, rolling avatars are already consulting with patients in hospitals. InTouch Health has been delivering its telepresence robots for nearly a decade. The RP-7 robot, for instance, has been deployed in hospitals, including U.S. Army trauma centers, since 2008, and allows doctors to videoconference with patients using a 15-inch webcam-enabled screen. They use a proprietary joystick controller to direct the movement of the five-foot robot. InTouch estimates that some 70,000 RP-7 sessions are completed each year.
Last year, the newer RP-VITA, which features upgrades like a web-based control system and the ability to gather data from standard diagnostic tools, won approval from the FDA. The robot can navigate itself between patient bedsides—without knocking down any nurses along the way—and swivel its screen 170 degrees, allowing it to turn and face multiple people in the same room. RP-VITAs are currently in use in hospital emergency, trauma, and intensive-care units, including the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
Meanwhile, these telepresence ‘bots’ are also helping doctors and specialists consult and teach from afar—beaming their expertise wherever it might be needed. In extreme cases, that could mean operating via robot from the other side of the world. But thanks to the rapid expansion of broadband networks, what began as a proof of concept in 2001—doctors in New York removed the gallbladder of a patient in Strasbourg, France—may soon become more commonplace.
In 2007, SRI, a company that’s been contracted by the U.S. Army since the 1980s to develop telepresence surgery solutions, used its M7, a two-armed remote-controlled surgical robot, to demonstrate how surgery in zero gravity on the International Space Station would work (or at least provide a way to high-five a Robonaut from dry land?). Even more recently, a doctor based at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Canada has completed several laparoscopic operations at a community medical hospital some 250 miles away through a connected surgical robot named Zeus.
Research is already underway to add remote-operating abilities to more surgical robots, which would be a boon for completing procedures in the absence of a local specialist. The systems, such as the da Vinci surgical robot from Intuitive Surgical, are becoming increasingly common (more than 3,000 da Vincis have been sold to date) and offer precision that outstrips many human surgeons.
Robotics company CITRIS has been working with a similar robot, the RAVEN, to test the feasibility of robot-assisted tele-surgery on a broader scale. In their system, a remote surgeon would specify actions for the robot to carry out, allowing for the professional’s knowledge and intuition to inform decisions on the fly. If successful, the team’s research could allow for robots to take over surgical tasks, such as sutures, and complete them accurately and, at times, more quickly than a human doctor could.
Although they’re still in the early stages of adoption, these meticulously developed and trained robots are already proving their worth to both doctors and patients. Overtaxed doctors will be able to be in two places at once. And patients may one day soon have immediate access to the care they need—whether they’re across the country or on the other side of the world.