Jackson Memorial Hospital sees more than 8,000 emergency patients per year, about half of them at Ryder. Approximately 30 percent of the general admissions result from gunshot wounds, stabbings or falls and the rest are the result of blunt trauma, vehicular accidents and various other causes. "We've got to find a new paradigm," Augenstein says, "where you can take the expertise of one person and cover many, many patients."
The WLIRC had been testing an RP-7 on loan from InTouch, but the doctors were recently given their own RP-7 with help from the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (a unit within the U.S. Army Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Md., that is sponsoring a portion of the research); Qualcomm, Inc., (a San Diego, Calif., provider of wireless technology and services also sponsoring as well as providing technical support); and the American Telemedicine Association (a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization managing the project). Although the WLIRC would not say how much the project costs, InTouch noted that an RP-7 costs about $250,000.
The RP-7 is a complex tower of technologies designed to be a doctor's proxy when he or she cannot be present. InTouch's panoramic "Virtually There" visualization system integrates digital cameras, microphones and other components to create two-way communication. The robot's Holonomic Drive System is the mechanism that lets the RP-7 roll from place to place while the SenseArray 360 System, a network of infrared proximity sensors and a bumper around the base of the platform, is designed to get the robot where it is going without bumping into walls or running over feet.
The WLIRC's previous RP-7 was tested by doctors connected wirelessly to the robot from within the Ryder Trauma Center, but they're now gearing up to test the ability of doctors to connect to the RP-7 from their homes, offices or anywhere else they can get a wireless signal. The RP-7 can be controlled via desktop PC or laptop at this time, but one of InTouch's goals for its product within the next two years is to make a robot model that is controllable via cell phone.
In the meantime, the doctors are trying to figure out the best way to work with their robotic colleague. Wireless connectivity via radio-frequency waves has always been taboo at hospitals, where staff fear that cell phones and Internet-connected laptops may interfere with sensitive medical equipment. Although some wireless devices do cause interference with some medical equipment, they are no more risky than two-way radios and other wireless communication devices already in use throughout hospitals, says Dan Spacht, regional sales director for InTouch Health.
Another concern is making sure that the robot does not step on anyone's toes—literally—during surgery. Whereas this may happen from time to time, Augenstein says, "If someone needs to do something in the space the robot is in, then the robot gets out of the way—either by being driven remotely or being pushed by one of the people in the room."