The Future is Here: Robots in the Hospital Room

Nov 22, 2016

On this edition of River to River, host Ben Kieffer and producer Emily Woodbury talk with medical providers about how different medical robots work, as well as the pros and cons of working side-by-side with machines to provide patient care.

Robots at the bedside: Telemedicine and the stroke robot

Dr. Leira of UIHC performs patient consultations via a tele-bot such as this one.

Tele-stroke carts help doctors treat patients remotely, allowing physicians like Dr. Enrique Leira, with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, to connect with doctors and patients in rural communities. Leira says it is especially important for stoke victims to receive treatment ASAP due to the nature of the condition.

"Every minute, two million neurons die when someone is having a stroke, and unfortunately, there's no expertise in all hospitals throughout the country, especially in rural areas, to know when a [certain] treatment needs to be administered,” Leira says. “Thanks to the tele-stroke technology, we are able to compensate for that disparity in rapid access to expertise by immediately logging into a computer.”

Surgical robots: Going under the mechanical knife

A robot-aided surgery being performed at the Brooke Army Medical Center.
Credit Army Medicine

Dr. Brian Wilson is a gynecological surgeon with Spencer Hospital, and he performs surgeries with the assistance of a robot. Instead of his own hands performing surgery, Wilson sits several feet away at a console, while his fingers manipulate the instruments via a glove, and he can change instruments with foot pedals. This makes it more comfortable for him, as well as decreasing risk and recovery time for the patient. He says that robots are being used almost every time someone goes under the knife.

“Any field that has surgery involved is using robotic surgery,” Wilson says. “Transplant surgery, heart surgery, micro-valve or different valves in the heart being replaced…orthopedic surgery has a different type of robot that’s being used as well.”

Bionic pets: Companion and therapy robots

Paro, the medical device and companion robot
Credit UCI UC Irvine

Companion pets are being used to treat anxiety, PTSD, and dementia. Socially-assistive robots are also being studied as a tool to interact with children with autism. The most famous companion robot is Paro, a $6,000 Class II medical device that resembles a fuzzy baby harp seal. Beth Fleming is a divisional director at the Bickford Senior Living Group, and she says that robots are a helpful tool for caregivers, especially as the country’s aging population increases. At the same time, she hopes that these robots do not take the place of caregivers, something she says cannot be replaced.

“I think this would be more of a supplement,” Fleming says. “You have some human interaction, and as a caregiver is sitting with a resident and has them to a place that is calm and happy, then maybe replace yourself with something like Paro, an interactive medical device.”

Violet: The UV-ray bot making sure the rooms at Spencer Hospital are disease-free

Violet at work disinfecting a room at Spencer Hospital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 25 hospital patients are affected by a hospital-acquired infection. Spencer Hospital in northwest Iowa hopes to combat the spread of disease and antibiotic-resistant bacteria with the help of Violet. Violet is a robot that moves between rooms at Spencer Hospital, pulsating bright, UV xenon rays in order to disinfect the space.

“Our traditional room cleaning or disinfection process uses chemicals that have kill-times for organisms, however we know that even in the best of our cleaning techniques, there are some organisms that can resist those chemicals,” says DeeAnn Vaage, an infection control nurse at Spencer Hospital. “We wanted to implement this technology to give us that added assurance that these organisms are going to be killed because they do not survive this level of light.”

"The Robot Will See You Now": How artificial intelligence may change the way patients are diagnosed

Medical data is expected to double every 73 days by 2020, and 80 percent of health data is not accessible to physicians – that’s according to senior national correspondent at the Huffington Post, Jonathan Cohn. He’s written about IBM developers that consider the ways a super-computer like Watson might be used to help diagnose patients more effectively. (Watson is the computer who beat humans in the game show, Jeopardy!)

“We are awash in data; there’s data everywhere. The trick is always trying to sort that data and then somehow figure out some way to use it,” says Cohn. “The nice thing about a computer like Watson is that it can actually read natural language. It can overcome that limitation, which gives it vastly more power.”

He says that rather than replacing human physicians, he sees computers with artificial intelligence assisting doctors and nurse practitioners in a way that could make a diagnosis more accurate, and a procedure more affordable.

“Over time, data and robots can assist existing medical professionals in a way that allows each of them to expand what they do,” he says. “We’re in a situation where we have this pressing need for more physicians than we can supply. One way to solve that problem is to say, ‘Well maybe physicians don’t need to do everything they’re doing now.’ A job that once took a physician to do, now it can be a nurse with [a super-computer], or a physician’s assistant with one.”