Study suggests patients feel comfortable and satisfied with robotic doctor

Baltimore 08 May 2004A new study at Johns Hopkins finds that many hospitalized patients prefer visits from their own physician to those of the physicians on duty, even when those "visits" are virtual "telerounds". Last year, researchers in Hopkins' Department of Urology introduced a robot electronically linked to a physician to augment the rounds physicians make routinely to check on their patients. Vaguely resembling a human torso, in a Star Wars "R2D2" sort of way, the robot sports a computer screen for a head, a video camera for eyes and a speaker for a mouth. It "walks", in a manner of speaking, on three roller balls, talks, and most importantly, "listens".

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"We were somewhat surprised to see the extent to which patients appreciated the potential for the robot to increase patient-physician contact and create new venues for information dissemination", stated Louis Kavoussi, M.D., Hopkins professor of urology and lead author of the study, which was presented at the May meeting of the American Urologic Association in San Francisco.

In the study, of 60 hospitalized patients recuperating from surgery, 30 were randomly selected to receive visits by the robo-doc once in lieu of an actual visit by their doctor. "Generally, the robot checked up on patients, asked them how they were feeling, inspected their surgical sites to ensure proper healing, and answered questions", Dr. Kavoussi explained. Patient satisfaction with the robot visits, called "telerounding", was assessed by questionnaire two weeks after patient discharge from the hospital.

Half of the patients said that telerounding should become a standard practice for post-operative patient management, and 57 percent said they would feel comfortable having telerounds as part of their future care. Half of those queried said they would prefer a telerounding visit by their own physician to a real visit by another physician. Eight out of 10 patients taking part in the study thought the robo-doc would increase accessibility to their physician, while 76 percent believed having the robot available would permit physicians to provide more medical information. "Clearly, most patients were very comfortable with this new technology", Dr. Kavoussi concluded.

Billed as the world's first remote-presence robot by its California-based manufacturer, InTouch Health Inc., the robotic system works something like a video game, complete with a joystick for moving it about. Looking at a computer terminal, the doctor directing the robot sees what the robot sees and hears what the robot hears. At the other end, patients can see and talk to the doctor's face displayed on a flat screen that sits on the robot's "shoulders". The system is connected to the Internet via broadband and a wireless network.

Fifteen of the mobile robo-docs have been placed in hospitals and nursing homes across the United States. InTouch leases the robots for $3000 a month, which includes computer software, training and technical support. The robots are not for sale because the software is updated about once a month, according to Timothy Wright, InTouch's vice president of marketing.

Dr. Kavoussi owns InTouch Health Inc. stock, which is subject to certain restrictions under University policy. Dr. Kavoussi is a paid member of the InTouch Health Inc. Scientific Advisory Board. The terms of this arrangement are being managed by the Johns Hopkins University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies. More news on InTouch Health is available in the VMW August 2003 article InTouch Health's Remote Presence Robot for health care begins clinical testing in skilled nursing setting.


Leslie Versweyveld

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