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iRobot Puts Telemedicine on Auto Pilot

“The doctor’s robot will see you now” may become a new refrain in hospitals.

Even technically savvy doctors would rather not spend a half an hour or more learning how to navigate a robot with a joy stick. A new robot from InTouch Health and iRobot is designed to make telemedicine as easy as pressing an iPad screen.

Redefining bedside manner: The RP-VITA for telemedicine is being tested in three hospitals.
 Credit: iRobot

Called the RP-VITA, the robot uses an iPad as the primary user interface for doctors to remotely diagnose and treat hospital patients. Its makers hope the simpler operation will broaden the use of robots for telemedicine, similar to how the graphical user interface turbo-charged personal computer use.

RP-VITA will be unveiled on Friday at InTouch’s annual conference and the company expects to have the telenavigation feature approved by the FDA in the fourth quarter this year. The five-foot-four robot, which weighs 140 pounds and moves around on three wheels, can automatically swivel so the videoconferencing screen faces voices. The pedestal-like machine also has ports for medical devices, such as a stethoscope and ultrasound.

InTouch Health’s specialty is remote-controlled robots for critical care, enabling people to be seen by doctors sooner than if they had to b in the same physical space as the physician. Getting a stroke victim, for example, to a specialist within three hours for diagnosis and treatment can make a huge difference to the patient. Similarly, specialists can provide care in intensive care units without having to physically be present, which should lower health care costs and improve care. 

Today, InTouch’s RP7 robot requires a person to drive it with a joystick from the remote location. The RP-Vita, which will replace the RP7, lets a nurse or physician send the robot to a room by pointing to the room on a building floor plan. While that may seem like an incremental improvement, InTouch Health CEO Yulun Wang expects it to be a vast improvement. 

“It really eliminates the need for the physician to spend any time thinking about the technology,” he says. “That’s really the objective: make it so 100 percent of the physician’s brain power is focused on how to take care of the patient.”

The robot, based on iRobot’s Ava platform, has a barrage of sensors to navigate through busy hallways without having to be led by a person. The company has built in the ability for Ava to create an internally stored map by moving through a building on its own. InTouch Health plans to lease the robot and associated services for between $4,000 and $6,000 a month.

iRobot last year invested $6 million in InTouch Health and co-developed RP-VITA with the company as a way for iRobot to get a foothold in the healthcare market. Having “hardened” the Ava platform for health care, iRobot intends to sell modified versions of the machine for adjacent industries, such as audio and video conference in business and building security or monitoring, says iRobot general counsel Glen Weinstein.