Robots offer more access to health care (with less wait time)

Fri, 2015-02-27 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Take one quick glance around the waiting room of a doctor’s office and it’s obvious there aren’t enough medical professionals. You may find people who are still waiting for an appointment that was supposed to start an hour ago. You may also see people who’ve had to travel hundreds of miles because there isn’t a closer specialist.

Council Lead Partner Qualcomm is painting a vision of a day when robots can help stretch the increasingly scarce medical resources. And in medical centers in some cities, that day has already arrived.

A need to provide more care, more efficiently
While we all hate waiting for a doctor who is running way behind schedule, the Qualcomm blog post points out that it’s not the doctor’s fault any more than your slow commute is the fault of the driver in front of you. The problem is that there simply aren’t enough doctors.

The Physicians Foundation found more than 80% of doctors in the U.S. are overextended or at capacity. They’re already trying to see more patients than they have time for. And the situation is getting worse. Between growing populations, medical schools that are also at capacity, and laws that provide more people with health insurance, by 2025, the number of primary care physicians in the U.S. could be 25,000 short of what’s needed.

A long wait in the doctor’s office is certainly annoying, but the problem is much more than an annoyance. Time spent waiting or traveling to see a doctor is wasted time. The delays and inconvenience even prevent some people from getting the care they need, causing more missed work. The Council's Smart Cities Readiness Guide shows that inadequate health care is already a half-trillion dollar annual drain on the U.S. economy.

Boosting medical productivity
Medical robots have been around for decades -- NASA has remotely monitored the health of astronauts since the 1960s -- but Qualcomm has profiled several advances that could make them more commonplace in facilities around the world.

Qualcomm was involved in a project to deploy medical robots from InTouch Health in U.S. Army trauma centers starting in 2008. Doctors can examine and talk to patients through a webcam and 15-inch video display. Already, more than 70,000 consultations are done each year. A newer version of the robot, which can safely travel from one patient’s bedside to another, has won regulatory approval and is already in use in some medical centers.

These remote examinations have the potential to significantly reduce delays in medical centers. The Smart Cities Readiness Guide profiles a project in the UK that involved an initial medical consultation in the patient’s home using their broadband Internet access and a set-top box. Nearly half the people receiving these in-home examinations avoided a trip to the emergency room; another 9% received faster care once they arrived there.

Robots. meanwhile, are helping stretch surgical resources allowing surgeons to treat patients even if they’re thousands of miles away. Qualcomm profiled SRI, which developed a two-armed surgeon-controlled robot that could even work in zero gravity on the International Space Station, and a doctor in Ontario, Canada, who has performed colon and hernia repair operations on patients who are 250 miles away.

Technology isn’t holding us back
While surgeons have proved that the technology works, there still are a number of unanswered legal and ethical questions that governments need to address. For one, as the surgical robots become widespread, what’s to stop someone who lives in a country where healthcare is expensive from being operated on by a doctor in a country where surgeons are paid much less? And if something goes wrong, what are the legal implications of that?

“The science is already there,” Dr. Mehran Anvari, who has performed remote operations from St Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Canada, told the BBC. “The other stuff is what’s holding us back.”

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.