Robot docs bridge gap between access, staffing

Telemedicine offers hospitals in smaller communities 24/7 access to specialists.

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Image courtesy of Intouch Health

WALLA WALLA -- For a patient suffering a stroke, access to a neurologist is a vital piece of the treatment puzzle, but only the rarest of hospitals has neurologists on site 24/7.

For hospitals such as Providence St. Mary Medical Center and Walla Walla General Hospital, 'round-the-clock access to neurologists is a requirement of their designation as Level II stroke centers. Such centers can stabilize and treat most stroke patients, according to state criteria.

But how to bridge the gap between the need for specialists and the reality of staffing in a small city?

Enter the robot doctor.

In the case of St. Mary, that doctor's official name is RP-Lite, and the doc looks a bit like an IV cart with a monitor hanging off of it. When in use, a neurologist working for Providence Stroke Center in Portland appears on the monitor and can interact with patients and medical staff via cameras and speakers.

On the neurologist's end, bells and whistles include access to EKG readouts, radiological imaging and a high-resolution view of the patient and anyone else on hand.

The upshot for patients goes far beyond the gee-whiz factor and the comfort of speaking to a specialist.

Consultation with a neurologist is a crucial part of determining whether a patient should receive clot-dissolving drugs or surgery, which can make the difference between walking away from a stroke with little or no long-term consequences and death or serious, lifelong disability.

Walla Walla General Hospital's director of critical care services, registered nurse Linda Givens, said the hospital also plans to use telemedicine and is currently negotiating with other health-care providers to gain access to a network of neurologists.

Alasdair Stewart can be reached at alasdairstewart@wwub.com or 526-8311.

See it work

Video showing how the RP-Lite works: ubne.ws/iE4GBB

RP-Lite at a glance

Some fast facts about the RP-Lite, a telemedicine-facilitating robot being leased by Providence St. Mary Medical Center:

  • Marketed by InTouch Health of Santa Barbara, Calif.
  • Has an onboard stethoscope and a handset so private conversations can be carried on with neurologist "in the machine."
  • Monitor can turn its "head" to look around the room.
  • Wide-angle and zoom lenses give remote doctors ability to see a whole room or get an up-close look at a patient's pupils.

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