Doctors with a poor bedside manner can come across as cold, detached and devoid of emotion. But that's nothing compared to the new interns at the Detroit Medical Center.
This spring, the ten-hospital network spent $1.1 million to deploy ten robots in six of the hospital's emergency rooms and intensive care units, assisting nurses and doctors.
Sounds scary, right? For those conjuring images of 1960s sci-fi movies, take heart: The machines are remotely controlled by actual physicians, who coordinate the robots' every move. Wireless routers installed throughout the ERs and ICUs let doctors virtually "inhabit" and steer the robots from controls in remote workstations, which are located in the hospital, or even at a doctor's home.
"It's like operating a remote-control car," says Dr. Richard Santucci, chief of urology at Detroit Receiving Hospital, who is spearheading the initiative.
While controlling the robot, a doctor can see and hear everything going on around the robot, access X-rays, medical records and lab reports in real time, and discuss that information with doctors who are treating a patient.
Patients can even speak "face-to-face" with the remote physicianthe doctor's live image appears on a flat-panel monitor where the robot's "head" would be.
From the physician's perspective, the RP-6 robots, which were developed by Santa Barbara, Calif.-based InTouch Health Inc., are invaluable. "The reality is that we don't have enough doctors in certain specialties," such as cardiology and pediatrics, Santucci says. "And we can't have people waiting six hours in the emergency room to see a specialist."
So when staffers are stretched thin, or it's 3 a.m. and a patient needs to see a specialist who is at home asleep, out come the robots. How do the patients feel? "They're delighted," Santucci says. "They freak out a lot less than you might think."
And using the robots can help cut overhead costs, despite the $100,000 price tag for each robot, Santucci says. In addition to reduced human labor, doctors can now make remote rounds during the day instead of the usual practice of making a round in the morning, operating in the afternoon and making a final round at night. That can lead to more efficient discharging of patients. "If you have a 100-bed hospital, it's significant," he says; each bed-day costs roughly $2,000.
Another cost-saving plus: Robots don't take vacation days or require health insurance.
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