Monday, August 21, 2017
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Robots In The ICU

Robot enthusiast Dr. Michael D. Black is the Chief of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery and the Director of the Pediatric and Adult Congenital Heart Program at the California Pacific Medical Center. If a family has a premature infant with heart problems, Dr. Black is a specialist who can help.

Dr. Black has enlisted the help of a robot, the RP-6, manufactured by InTouch Health, to extend his daily activities and ability to team with his associates on countless decisions. This means a lot not only to his patients, but to their parents, his colleagues, and to Dr. Black himself.

ROBOT:  What is the basic application?

DR. BLACK: Remote telepresence, but it has become much more than that. Physicians may have patients in multiple hospitals, or in multiple places in a hospital. I live far away from my office, and prior to finishing up my day, I can drive the robot around the hospital and do additional rounds.

If a patient’s parent is there, the robot creates a mobile video conference. It has humanoid aspects—as you speak you can turn the robot from one person to another. I can snap a picture of the patient with the robot, project it on the screen that parents can see, and draw a picture to explain what will happen during and after the operation. This meets a real need in both a surgical and human context.

Doctors at night or on weekends are often relying on nursing staff, who might sense something is not right. If you look at the baby yourself, using the high quality robot cameras, you can see what is going on, and compare notes with the staff, which is reassuring to all.

I almost adopt the kids who are in our hospital and it is wonderful to see them and answer any questions. I will come in as the robot and they feel that you are doing your best. Two days after a surgery, the little baby recognizes my voice and my face – it is still me even though I’m gazing down from a laptop screen. Patients who enjoy seeing me immediately smile.

ROBOT: How do you operate the bot?

: I have a split screen and a joystick. Infrared sensors help avoid obstacles. My control system displays colors when it senses nearby objects and alerts me if I’m too close. Our wireless network allows me to drive independently; I just need someone to open doors. Maneuverability is awesome. It can move fast, so you have to be careful. It’s great to see the faces of people that I pass in the hallway.

The robot has a screen saver that says it is inactive for audio or video – so people in the hospital can be assured nobody is “spying.” I don’t light up the robot without phoning in – you need trust between workers.

ROBOT: What do you think the future will bring for this kind of robot?

DR. BLACK: Eventually, there will be interactive sensing devices so that you can examine the patient to get real time physical parameters. Within the next few years, I believe most doctors working in hospital settings will be dialing in and driving them. It is a tremendous convenience on weekends or during downtime. If I get an indication that needs attention, I can drive right up to the monitoring instruments and see the details first hand. As the shortage of specialists grows, this will help us economically manage patients in multiple locations.

ROBOT: What has been the overall response?

DR. BLACK: Parents desire this as it gives them additional opportunity to confer with their physician. Acceptance of this device is huge – people are just enthralled by the technology.

ROBOT: Thank you for the interview.

DR. BLACK: Thank you! Any who wish to learn more about this application can email me at


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