RP-VITA robot

FDA-approved hospital robot could boost telemedicine

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first autonomous navigation robot for hospitals. It will be available for use within the next few months and could be a boon to state and federal telemedicine programs.

The RP-VITA, which stands for Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant, was developed jointly by iRobot Corp and InTouch Health. It allows doctors to interact remotely with their hospital patients. It will cost between $4,000 and $6,000 a month to operate the human size robot (5 feet, 6 inches tall). Interactions between doctors and patients will be via a screen that shows the doctor’s face.

Autonomous robots are only one tool available to the health care industry. Telemedicine, fast gaining ground in the industry, is expected to improve health care access and quality to those in rural areas. In late 2011, the Veterans Affairs Department launched a pilot using a combination of streaming video, e-mail and text applications to allow veterans in remote areas visit their health care providers online.

In 2010, five government agencies announced a joint robotics program to develop medical, military, scientific, agricultural and bomb disposal robots. The Robotics Technology Development and Deployment program is a joint effort by the National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation, and Agriculture and Homeland Security departments.

With RP-VITA , doctors will use an iPad user interface to connect to hospital systems, direct the robot to the patient, view a patient’s medical records and access devices such as ultrasound and electronic stethoscopes to evaluate a patient from anywhere in the world. Information can then be integrated with the patient's vital signs data and lab results, iRobot said in a release.

The RP-VITA uses mapping, obstacle detection and avoidance technology to avoid collisions with objects and people, an important consideration in busy hospitals with constant movement of delicate equipment and sick patients.

"There are very few environments as difficult to maneuver as that of a busy ICU or emergency department,” said Colin Angle, iRobot’s chairman and CEO, quoted in a Phys.Org article. “Having crossed this technology threshold, the potential for self-navigating robots in other markets, and for new applications, is virtually limitless.”

Hospitals are facing “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 health care professionals is required,” Dr. Richard Afable, president of and CEO of Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, said in iRobot’s release. Hoag, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) participated in clinical validations as part of the FDA review process in iRobot’s press release.

The American Telemedicine Association estimates that 10 million Americans directly benefited from some sort of telemedicine service in the past year.  Additionally, seven states and the District of Columbia have already introduced bills addressing the coverage and reimbursement of telemedicine services:  Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico, Nebraska and South Carolina, ATA reported recently.

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