Telemedicine Robot Cleared for Launch
By Bryan Bergeron
In addition to often fierce competition in the marketplace, medical device developers face the hurdle of obtaining clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The clearance process of proving effectiveness for certain medical conditions or settings can take years and a small fortune. The first autonomous remote presence robot to survive the federal gauntlet is the Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant, or RP-VITA.
The RP-VITA — a combination of technologies from InTouch Health and iRobot (the maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner) — is intended to allow a physician to support the care of a patient remotely. That is (unlike, say, the holographic doctor on Voyager which interacts directly with his patients), the RP-VITA supports a nurse or other healthcare professional in assessing a patient.
For example, the armless robot can’t hold a stethoscope to a patient’s chest, but it can direct a nurse to hold the stethoscope. The physician on the other end of the connection can listen to the sound and presumably make a diagnosis — even from the golf course.
Compared with the previous generation of InTouch medical robots – which I’ve used – this latest incarnation sports a sleeker body and a greatly improved user interface. There’s an Apple iPad mounted front and center on the robot, meaning that any child over three or four can probably transform the robot into a Series 800 Terminator with a few finger presses. There’s a camera and LCD panel mounted at head level that provides two-way visual communications.
Fundamentally, the technology is essentially that of a medical kiosk — the kind often found in malls and in larger companies — but on an intelligent, moveable platform. So, what’s the big deal, from a practical perspective? Why don’t nurses carry an iPad around and call in to the doctor whenever there’s a problem? Or put everything on a cart?
I assume the folks at InTouch Health and iRobot would be quick to point out that their unit can be more easily shared by the staff in an ER. It’s also difficult for a patient to stuff the robot into a pocket and walk out – definitely not the case with an iPad.
Technical features and quirks aside, the release of the RF-VITA illustrates what I believe is key to a disruptive technology. Notice that the robot isn’t positioned as a nurse or doctor killer, destined to replace humans. Instead — as with the successful early expert systems and surgical robots — this robot is positioned as a tool to be used by clinicians. Such human-in-the-loop technologies are less likely to be sabotaged by those whose jobs are at risk.
Is this robot destined to become the delivery platform of choice for modern physicians? Probably not. But it does mark the start of an evolutionary change in the practice of medicine, and a foothold for other robotic platforms in the hospital, nursing home, and school clinic. Moreover, it’s potentially a harbinger of a telepresence robot industry that enables virtual multitasking. One robot attends classes while another stands around a conference room table, discussing the merits of a new product launch.
Meanwhile, the operator, wearing a white dress shirt, tie, and plaid shorts, tries to look both studious and earnest, looking into his iPad camera while watching the waves crash into the beach. SV