From The Editor | February 3, 2012

Robots Invade Telemedicine

Ken Congdon, Editor In Chief of Health IT Outcomes

By Ken Congdon, editor in chief, Health IT Outcomes

As consumers in the age of infomercials, many of you have probably seen television spots for the Roomba — a robotic vacuum cleaner that automatically sweeps the floor without the aid of a human operator. Who would have thought that the next big market opportunity for iRobot Corporation (www.irobot.com) — the makers of the Roomba — would be in healthcare? However, an announcement released on February 2 seems to confirm this assertion. According to the release, iRobot has agreed to a $6 million investment and expanded partnership with InTouch Health (www.intouchhealth.com), a leading remote presence telemedicine solution provider.

InTouch Health has already earned FDA approval for its telepresence technology, and under the agreement, iRobot will be provided with access to FDA regulated healthcare facilities such as hospitals, emergency care facilities, patient wards, and operating rooms. The two companies will also collaborate on a wide variety of technologies across each of the company's patent portfolios and leverage combined expertise in remote presence telemedicine solutions.

The two companies will first aim to address the hospital market, creating a robot designed to provide remotely located physicians (e.g. family doctors, specialists, etc.) with insight into how their patients are recovering when treated at area hospitals. Physicians will be able to control the robot remotely via a computer and joystick. The doctor can move the robot to the patient bedside to get a first-hand look at their condition via an onboard high-definition video camera and ask the patients a series of questions via the robot interface. InTouch Health already offers a robot (the RP-7i Robot) that provides most of this functionality. However, this device currently focuses on providing high-quality audio-video feeds. The two companies hope to leverage iRobot's advanced robotic technology to improve on this concept by making these robots easier to use by a broader class of physicians.

Robots Move From Hospitals To Home-Care

iRobot and InTouch Health aren't the only companies leveraging robots to deliver telemedicine. For example, VGo Communications (www.vgocom.com) currently manufactures a 4-foot-6-inch, 17 pound, two-wheeled robot that is currently in use at several healthcare facilities including Florida Hospital, Intermountain Healthcare, and Children's Hospital Boston.

These VGo robots serve primarily the same purpose as InTouch Health's RP-7i in these facilities — providing remotely located physicians with a means of mobile videoconferencing while their patients are admitted to the hospital. However, Children's Hospital Boston is currently in the midst of a pilot project in which patients take robots home with them after their stay for help with postoperative consultations and care.

The VGo robots allow families of patients to keep in touch with doctors and nurses without having to drive their children back to the hospital or doctor's office. The robots come equipped with cameras, audio gear, and a video screen that allow physicians not only to communicate with the patient and his or her family, but also take video and close-up photos of surgical scars or other key areas of interest. Eight Children's patients have participated in the VGo pilot project to date and the hospital hopes to bring that number to about 40 before rolling out the robots on a broader scale.

Whether or not it was influenced by the pilot project under way at Children's Hospital Boston, InTouch Health and iRobot see a huge opportunity for robots in the home-health space as well. Once they crack the hospital market, the two companies plan to turn their attention to what they deem the "much larger" home-care arena.

According to the companies, telemedicine robots designed for consumers would not cost as much as those used in hospitals because of trends in mobile technology. Advances in mobile devices, gaming, and apps have created mass-market access to services such as voice and video over IP, touchscreen interfaces, voice and facial recognition, and gestural interfaces. By marrying these technologies with the robots they are developing for the hospital market, iRobot and InTouch Health believes they have an exciting roadmap in place for developing a low-priced telemedicine robot for home-care in an accelerated timeframe.

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