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It’s a routine that anyone who’s been hospitalized will be familiar: the doctor rounds.

But for a smattering of patients recovering at a handful of hospitals across the country, including Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore and the University of California at Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, the experience is taking a decidedly high-tech turn as the patients come face to face with the brave new world of “telerounding” – where the follow-up physician bares more resemblance to Robbie the Robot  than Noah Wyle.

Hospitals are experimenting with these robots as a way to let doctors meet with patients more frequently, or conduct virtual visits at multiple hospitals from one location

The robo-docs looks – and move – more like an over-sized steam cleaner than android’s of Isaac Asimov..The 5-foot, 200-pound robot is equipped with a screen, zoom video camera, microphone and speakers that allow a physician to speak with and examine their patient and review charts, all while being remotely steered by doctors using videoconferencing and movement controls run through a secure Internet connection that is dropped into a wireless network at the hospital site where the robot is working. 

If patients are receptive and doctors are able catch as much as they would during a conventional in-person visit – which initial studies indicate is true – the use of these robots could not only give patients more face time with practitioners but also save hospitals money by allowing patients check out sooner and extend specialized medical care to more rural areas.

“It’s much less impersonal than people give it credit for,” says Dr. Lars Ellison, an assistant professor at U.C. Davis who designed the robot study which analyzes the effectiveness of this technology.

Ellison concedes that, before the study began a few years back, he thought people would think the use of robots for these tasks was “stupid or impersonal, that they would want to have a warm body at the bed regardless.” But, after reviewing feedback from dozens of patients, he says, “we found quite the opposite.” 

Indeed, half of the patients surveyed said they would prefer a telerounding visit from their own doctor to an in-person visit from another physician. And 8 out of 10 patients thought the use of these would make their doctors more accessible. More than three-quarters said that the technology will give doctors the ability to share medical information more readily.

“People would rather be seen by their own doctor, even if it’s through the robot,” Ellison says. “The rapport is what’s important.”

But doctors and hospitals need to concern themselves with more than just what the patient will accept, they also need to consider what is safe and effective.

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Tagged: Computing, Biomedicine

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