ICBioethics Blog 

Health Technology Update: Robot gets FDA approval to roam hospital halls

Written by: Aimee Zellers

Health technologies are developing at an incredible pace. While smart robots may be replacing some manufacturing jobs, it is still in the distant future before a robot and physician will be one in the same. However, a recent innovation, by iRobot and InTouch Health, has created what some are referring to as a robot doctor. Now, of course the physician isn’t actually a robot; however, the mode of communication and interaction between the patient and physician is done through a robot. The FDA has approved the first robot, which allows physicians to connect with patients anywhere on the planet, to autonomously roam the halls of hospitals.

This is the first of its kind to be approved by the FDA. The robot, RP-VITA Remote Presence Robot, has a laptop at its head that allows a physician and patient to communicate; this is the new face of telemedicine. This robot has its own stethoscope and has adaptors that allow it to be connected to other medical equipment such as ultrasound machines. In addition, the robot is connected to the hospital’s internal server and, therefore, has access to x-rays, CT scans, MRI results, and other test results and data such as physician and caseworker notes. The most significant aspect of this innovation is its ability to navigate hospitals and care facilities. A physician can select a patient on a list and the robot will physically take the physician to the patient’s location.

Non-mobile versions of this robot have been used in Haiti, Iraq, and in major national disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. The benefit is obvious; this robot brings expert assessment and care to areas that need it. In some medical specializations, there are a limited number of physicians and centers that provide highly specialized services. In these cases, patients are left with two choices, travel to where the experts are or forgo expert treatment for a rare or complex condition. Telemedicine, through this new robot, extends the expertise of these highly specialized physicians beyond their own hospitals. This means that they could treat patients all over the country. This technology could dramatically increase the access to quality diagnosis. Telemedicine using these new robots, both mobile and non-mobile versions, has resulted in the completion of over 272,000 remote sessions to date. These mobile robots will hit the open market this year and will probably retail for somewhere between $4,000 – $6,000.

However, there are some concerns that do not appear to be addressed by the companies creating these robots. The primary question is what impact will telecommunication have on the patient-physician relationship? Does dealing with a human being standing in front of you differ from watching someone talk to you on a screen? Will physicians be able to communicate compassion or cultivate a patient’s trust through a laptop?

Check out the new RP-VITA and other robots here

There is no doubt there is immense benefit in this new technology, but if telemedicine becomes a dominant or common practice for everyday medicine, will it threaten the physician-patient relationship? Let me know your thoughts!

Mitch GennusoComment