The future of health care could involve less personal interaction with human doctors. And that's a good thing.
This, anyway, is what the folks at iRobot are hoping. iRobot is a name you're probably familiar with because as well as leading the charge of robotics into your home with its Roomba vacuum bots, it's also making military PackBots that are helping soldiers  in places like Afghanistan defuse IEDs. But an iRobot product may soon be one of the first robots you meet in a hospital environment, because in partnership with InTouch Health, it's releasing a robot called RP-VITA that lets remotely situated specialists participate in a diagnosis through telepresence.
Telepresence is a technology usually associated with an office environment , because it's a compelling idea that a remote worker can be enabled to roam the corridors of a company, attend meetings almost as if in person and even take part in water cooler chat. But these sort of telepresence robots, which do have some collision avoidance systems and navigation abilities are a far cry from the sophistication that RP-VITA has aboard.
The whole idea of this robot is to improve patient care by enabling access to a doctors who may have special expertise that's relevant to the patient, but are situated far away. To this end, VITA has the same kind of monitor display, in this case showing the face of the doctor, and cameras to transmit images of the patient. But in this case the cameras are high resolution, so, as iRobot CEO Colin Angle tells Fast Company, "you can be sure that the doctor is at least as informed as a local doctor would be" because the video feed can be used to look at the patient's skin, or even to spot more subtle effects like breathing asymmetries.
There's even the possibility that this system could actually spot things that may otherwise be missed because the doctor can record the video feed and play it back at a later time, which Angle points out allows for more efficient use of time because the patient examination could be carried out, and the video footage viewed later on. This may even allow, we suspect, for a kind of real-world "House moment ," when a specialist has an epiphany about a case--and has access to the recorded video to help them think it through.
But Angle also says that VITA is more than just a video feed, as it comes with a number of data ports that connect to devices like a digital stethoscope, otoscope or ultrasound imaging. A nurse or other medical technician present in the room with the patient can assist the robot and the telepresent doctor to use these devices, which would be an integral part of the consultation. And VITA also integrates digital medical records, so the distant doctor has the entire patient file on hand if needs be.
Meanwhile, Angle has still bigger plans for VITA: "Typically you think about these telepresence robots as 'one doctor, one robot,' but through a collaborative interface you can have multiple doctors viewing the session from the robot and potentially even have shared or hand-off control of what the robot is doing among several doctors."
That idea has important implications for very tricky medical cases where several opinions could help form a diagnosis or decide on treatment, and could, one day, change how medical education happens with interns doing the rounds with a doctor.
iRobot is pursuing FDA approval of the machine, and expects that it'll cost $4,000 to $6,000 per month in a leasing model--which includes the full technology package needed to make the robot work. But this cost is hopefully offset by the efficiencies that can be achieved by accessing a long list of expert doctors who don't have to be physically present in the hospital, and because it should be able to allow hospitals to make patient consults as efficient in terms of time and cost as possible. The robot is also able to look after itself somewhat, and can be scheduled to autonomously navigate from place to place using its advanced collision detection systems to thread its way through hospital corridors which may be cluttered with equipment and rapidly moving people.
And that's where the tech smarts of VITA come in, based on its earlier Ava mobile robotics  platform. Angle explains that, "the platform has the sensing capability and the navigating capability to really deliver the best remote presence robotic experience that's been commercialized to date." It's even, he suggest, just about capable of delivering a "better than being there experience" because of its tight integration of many medical devices and patient data, and unlike your regular doctor it can be improved mainly by upgrading its software rather than hardware. Angle even tentatively floats the idea that in the future it may be possible for third party software developers to build upon the platform--subject to the complex rules of the FDA, but still presenting many opportunities for expanding the robot's powers and thus patient care.
In fact, VITA allows iRobot to test its hardware and software powers, with high resolution imaging, better sensors and navigation systems that are "premium" grade because of the requirements of the medical scenario, with a goal of taking what they learn into other environments. "Here we have a commercially viable solution... that can be targeted at other markets, from high-end video conferencing to retail to industrial inspection applications," Angle says. "If we can survive and be cleared to operate in that most challenging environment, that will open the door to many other environments."
[Images: Flickr user fixedgear ; iRobot]