Physician robot to begin making rounds

The robot can be controlled by an iPad and can make hospital rounds while the doctor observes remotely

The maker of Roomba, the robotic vacuum, has stepped up its game and Tuesday unveiled a 5-ft., 4-in.-tall, 140-pound "telemedicine" robot aimed at aiding hospital patients in emergency situations, especially during nighttime hours when staffing is lower.

The robot, dubbed RP-VITA (Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant), is the result of a collaboration between iRobot and InTouch Health, a telemedicine robotics vendor.

RP-VITA robot
Dr. Jason Knight connects via the RP-VITA telemedicine robot to remotely examine an ER patient during a clinical validation process at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif.

With a video screen for a head, a microphone and speaker for a mouth and two high-definition cameras for eyes, RP-VITA offers a more human-like interaction for physicians who can't be on site. For example, one of the robot's cameras offers a 170-degree view of a room while the other offers a clinician or nurse up to 30-times magnification, enough to see how a patient's eyes respond to light.

"You can read a magazine from across the room with this thing," said Glen Weinstein, general counsel for iRobot.

The robot also has an autonomous navigation capability that allows it to move from one point to another while avoiding obstacles. It can also be controlled by a clinician or a nurse using an iPad tablet or a laptop over a Wi-Fi connection.

Apart from its most well-known Roomba product, iRobot makes a number of products for both the consumer market and the military. RP-VITA, for example, uses technology from iRobot's current Ava robot, which already had autonomous point-to-point navigation. The new RP-VITA, however, has a slicker, human-like form to it. It uses the latest in telemedicine technology from InTouch Health, which already sells remotely controlled robots for hospitals.

For example, InTouch Health's RP-7 robot is already used in several hundred hospitals, offering clinicians remote patient interaction with patients. The RP-7, however, is controlled with a proprietary joystick and not a web-based interface. Even so, there are about 70,000 RP-7 "sessions" or patient interactions per year, according to Yulun Wang, CEO of InTouch Health.

"Remote presence capability has the opportunity to transform healthcare delivery at its core. I can see a day where millions of sessions are going on on an annual basis," Wang said.

The new RP-VITA robot is being marketed for use in hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units to allow physicians speedy access to patients in critical situations. The robot, which has a five-hour battery life, is also being sold as a way for physicians to make their rounds without being at the hospital.

"What's more important here is it's not just facilitating the doctor making his rounds, but the team making their rounds," Wang said. "The challenge is getting all the team members there simultaneously. The ones who are not able to be on site at the given time can beam into RP-VITA and participate in the rounds that way."

The RP-VITA robot allows clinicians and nurses to remotely respond to patients in ICUs and emergency rooms and gives physicians the ability to perform routine duties, such as patient rounds, via a web interface.

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