The robots are controlled with a joystick from a remote site. The doctor "driving" the robot can view the patient, ask questions and read patient records, view X-rays and test results from the console. The patient sees the doctor's image on the robots "face". Although the robot does not physically examine the patient it allows face-to-face contact between the doctor and patient, providing immediate access to specialists.
Parv Sains, project lead, Surgical Specialist Registrar and Research Fellow, said benefits include allowing patients direct access to experts worldwide and to the doctor who performed their surgery, even if they cannot be physically at the patient's bedside. "If a specialist is at a conference in California but their medical opinion is needed for a St. Mary's patient or to deliver a lecture to junior doctors the RP6 robot provides an instant and global link at any time of the day or night. Our robots certainly would never replace all doctors on ward rounds, but they are a communication tool which allows a doctor to have direct contact with their patient if they are unable to get to them", explained Parv Sains.
"If we look at a lot of the current strains on the National Health Service (NHS) many senior doctors with skills and knowledge are required to be in several places at once. This is a solution in potentially providing their expertise from a remote location and may be a significant step for patient care", he added.
The robots are being trialled in a General Surgery Ward and A&E Department within St. Mary's Hospital and for training purposes, at Imperial College's Academic and Clinical Skills Unit. This is the only site in the United Kingdom and one of just a handful worldwide, including one in Europe, and three in the USA.
The RP6 robots are the latest strand in the pioneering integration of robots into health care by Professor Sir Ara Darzi, Head of Imperial's Division of Surgery, Anaesthetics and Intensive Care and a practising surgeon at St. Mary's. Professor Sir Ara Darzi added: "This is a revolutionary concept which opens new avenues for telemedicine research and integrates technology with health care at a grass roots level, increasing the interface between patients, clinicians and teaching staff."
The robot runs on a wireless system with the doctor at another location. It is controlled via a secure broadband Internet connection. The doctor (controller) and patient are able to have a real-time two way audiovisual interaction, with the controller in full command of the robots movements, head monitor and camera.
As part of the pilot, a study is being conducted to evaluate how patients respond to the robots, specific communications skills required for remote presence teleconsultation and potential applications of the technology in clinical health care delivery and training. Funding has been provided by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, a charitable trust for medical research.
St. Mary's NHS Trust is currently negotiating with London National Programme for IT for an earlier implementation of the Philips Picture Archiving and Communications System (PACS) in 2006/07 which will enable patient records, x-rays and test results to be accessed on the RP-6 Robot.
The RP6 was developed by the United States robotics company, InTouch Health. St. Mary's and Imperial College London are the first British hospital to trial the robots and only the fifth worldwide. Three robots have been piloted in the United States and one in Strasbourg, France. More news on the Intouch Health robots is available in the VMW April 2005 article UCLA Medical Center becomes world's first hospital to introduce remote presence robots in ICU.