Coming Soon: Robot Assistants in the Emergency Room

Would you trust a robot with your life?


Would you trust a robot with your life? Researchers at Vanderbilt University are banking on it. Specialists in emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and computer engineers at the university recently teamed up to develop the TriageBot, a robotic system designed to handle the 60 percent of patients who show up at emergency rooms with non-life threatening problems.

Here’s how the system could work: registration clerks direct patients to robotic assistants that take patients through the registration process with touch-screens and voice prompts. If patients report potentially life-threatening information–chest pains, for example–the robotic assistants will immediately notify staff. Otherwise, patients are given a wait time and sent to the waiting room.

Vanderbilt researchers imagine that “triage nurse assistant robots” built into waiting room
chairs measure blood pressure, pulse
rate, blood oxygen saturation, respiration rate, height and weight. Mobile robot assistants also wander around the waiting room, making sure that patients are conscious and asking about their pain level (we imagine that this could get annoying very quickly).

The TriageBot is still at least five years away from being installed in your local emergency room. Vanderbilt explains:

Most of the work in robotics has concentrated on deliberative
decision-making – collecting large amounts of data and then taking hours
to determine optimal courses of action, he noted. Humans, by contrast,
can make a number of decisions in a matter of seconds if needed. “If
cognitive robots are to operate successfully in a human environment,
they must be able to choose actions with a similar rapidity,
particularly in a chaotic environment like the emergency room,” Kawamura

Undergraduate engineering students at Vanderbilt have already started building a registration bot that features a  touch-screen, camera, blood pressure cuff, electronic
weight scale and a fingertip pulse oximeter that keeps track of pulse rate and
blood oxygen levels. And after that? Commercializing the technology. Hospital patients, get ready to greet your robot overlords.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.