Physician robot to begin making rounds

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.

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 iPadtablet 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.

The RP-VITA robot doesn’t treat patients. It’s a vehicle for clinicians and nurses to see and communicate with patients remotely through a camera and HD screen, as well as allowing access to patient clinical data. The robot can be used in conjunction with InTouch Health’s cloud service to provide doctors real-time access to electronic medical records.

The robot is also equipped with the ability to connect with diagnostic devices such as otoscopes, for examining the inside of the ears, and ultrasound. For example, the robot comes with a port inside of which is an electronic stethoscope. A nurse can pull out the stethoscope, and a physician can remotely listen to a patients breathing or heartbeat.

The robot’s autonomous navigation allows a remote clinician or bedside nurse to send the RP-VITA to a target destination with a single click, enabling the use of clinical applications.

The robot’s head, or monitor, also swivels, and will shift its attention to whomever is in the hospital room.

“This enables that same kind of interaction that would take place between a doctor and patients or family members, but through a robotic intermediary,” Wang said.

The RP-VITA may be making its debut in hospitals, but iRobot expects it to expand to use in other markets, including homes.

“They lend themselves to a wide variety of applications in home, retail, industrial and other settings,” Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, said in a statement.

As part of a vetting by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, RP-VITA robot was evaluated by several hospitals in clinical tests, including Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, and Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif.

“The hospital industry is undergoing significant changes, and as we strive to maintain our culture of ensuring an excellent patient experience, we face significant pressure on reducing operating expenses and managing staffing and resources. New technology such as the RP-VITA that dramatically increases the effectiveness and extends the reach of healthcare professionals is required,” Richard Afable, CEO of Hoag Memorial, said in a statement.

Telemedicine is a shift in direction for iRobot. In January, iRobot invested $6 million with InTouch Health as part of a joint development and licensing agreement. Then, in February, iRobot said it would broaden its range of products in response to Pentagon spending cuts over the next 10 years.

The RP-VITA robot will be available near the end of 2012 by InTouch Health. It will be leased at prices ranging from $4,000 to $6,000 per month.

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