Some of us complain their doctors are too stiff, lack warmth and are too robotic. But calling such doctors "robots" may be a disservice to RP-Vita the latest telepresence, healthcare bot from InTouch Health and iRobot.
RP-VITA (Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant), unveiled this week at the Clinical Innovations Forum in Santa Barbara, is a remote-controlled telepresence robot that combines InTouch's "telemedicine" technology and the autonomous navigation innovations introduced in iRobots' AVA robot at CES in 2011.
iRobot, which also makes the popular Roomba robot home vacuum, made a $6 million investment in InTouch in January of this year.
It may be controlled via joystick, but RP-Vita does have some awareness of its environment. It employs a dazzling array of sensors that include PrimeSense Sensors (the same ones you find in the Kinect for Xbox 360), two cameras that together approximate normal human vision, sonar and a laser range finder. It also creates a map of the hospital and knows the location, for example, of its roll-into charging base.
When the caregiver logs off, RP-Vita, which gets about five hours of activity on a charge, automatically returns to the base. It also features a large screen where the attending doctor's face will appear. That doctor could be anywhere she has access to the Internet (and a Webcam). RP-Vita's web portal currently works on an Apple iPad or a laptop or desktop.
RP-Vita is not, at least for now, designed for run of the mill checkup and house calls. It focuses on urgent care in the emergency room and ICU. Once RP-Vita is in place, it can, via local Wi-Fi and a cloud based medical record system, collect patient data and, with another care-giver present, check vital signs via connected octoscopes, ultrasound devices and a built-in stethoscope.
All the information collected and sent through InTouch's telemedicine system is encrypted and then shared with the attending doctor (who is controlling the robot from her remote location).
For as smart as RP-Vita is right now, it's likely to get even more so by the end of the year. It already has built-in autonomous navigation, but won't be able to use it in a hospital environment until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) give its approval, perhaps as early as the end of this year.
This is not InTouch Health's first healthcare robot. The company's model RP-7 is at work in 600 hospitals and accounts for nearly 70,000 patient interactions each year, according to InTouch executives. With RP-Vita, however, InTouch seems poised to take telemedicine to the next level.
"The combination of two organizations has been able to build a system that is truly state of the art relative to anything that has been commercialized before," said InTouch Chairman & CEO Yulun Wang, PhD. He added that the RP-Vita is "a breakthrough in tech in the commercial marketplace."
Wang briefly mentioned the demands of healthcare reform, so we asked if "Obamacare" (President Obama's hotly contest overhaul) is good for RP-Vita.
"Yes, it's good for Vita and the telemedicine movement and really what's fueling a lot of growth for InTouch," he said. "Obamacare is about trying to improve quality."
He added that RP-Vita aligns with the reformers' goals of improving access and lowering costs. The RP-Vita will run roughly $4,000 to $6,000 a month, and is already undergoing trials at several hospitals.
Would you be comfortable with a visit from a telepresence robot or will you insist that your doctor is always present to give your direct care? Let us know in the comments.