The Reality of Robot Doctors - Health Week


By Anna Swann-Pye

Robot. Photo courtesy of Sebastianlund

How important is bedside manner anyway? According to CBS affiliate WBZ in Boston, iRobot is teaming up with InTouch Health to develop a remote controlled “physician on wheels.” This robot can be linked up to other medical tools and patient files for instant updates. Does this mean that we are looking forward to an age of robocare, where machines replace doctors in hospitals around the world? At least for the iRobot, that may not be the case. Here is what Gizmodo says about the new iRobot doctor, called RP-VITA:

The RP-VITA is platform [sic-ed.], and not just in one sense of the word. It is designed to be “the remote presence device component of a total acute care telemedicine solution” which is part of the InTouch Health system and includes an integrated ecosystem of technologies and support infrastructure… It’s also a platform in the physical sense. Parts may be swapped out depending on the doctor’s needs, and iRobot envisions altered versions of these bots being produced for home and retail purposes.

It seems, then, that RP-VITA is a computer capable of performing various tasks but only when assisted by a doctor. This type of technological innovation is not particularly new.

Dr. Renna Whittredge, MD talked to BreakThru Radio about the emergence of Computer Assisted Diagnostics in mammography. “We have computers that process patient information and give us their best diagnostic estimation. But they aren’t robots and they aren’t meant to be used in place of a doctor. They are more like Siri on your phone. They produce information with the help of a human and that information is then assessed by a human.”

The RP-VITA appears to be more like this Computer Assisted Diagnostics, then.

“The robots will be capable of autonomously navigating the hospital hallways, avoiding obstacles and people (once the FDA approves this functionality),” writes Gizmodo’s Brent Rose, “They will be cloud-connected and linked to your full medical record, and they will have ports for directly connecting to medical diagnostic devices. All this and it’s controlled by an iPad. The RP-VITA is designed to get the doctor to where he or she is needed and to make sure they know everything they need to know.”

The RP-VITA works with the help of a doctor to do the tasks that a computer might be able to do. It works to get information ready for a doctor, who will then come in and do the diagnosing and the hands-on care. Not exactly a robot. More like a really smart smartphone. Sort of disappointing, but were robot doctors a possibility, would that even be desirable?

“There is a contradiction of wants for patients seeking medical attention,” Whittredge says. “They want computer driven diagnostics — the newest technology, which they believe ensures the most reliable treatment — but they also want the comfort of an actual face. They want a real human to talk to them about options and to answer questions.”

So it seems that the possibility of robots entering the field of medicine might be slightly disconcerting for patients, to say the least. But what about for doctors?

“It is true that, because of a fear of litigation, some doctors have chosen to become more hands-off with the way that they practice medicine,” says Whittredge, “they’ll rely more on computer assisted diagnostics and administer more tests. But I can’t imagine that they would want to be replaced by robots.”

It is hard to imagine that doctors would willingly sign up for anything that would take away their jobs. But there is more than one reason why robot doctors are not an appealing idea to Whittredge.

“There is already this increasing fragmentation of care in medicine. You’re often dealing with a piece of the puzzle without understanding the whole thing. You’re given information without having talked to the patient at all. I don’t like this turn to the machine. For me, human interaction is the best part of medicine.”

So, although some part of all of us may fantasize about Rosie the Jetsons’ maid delivering our post-surgery jello dishes, there are a number of reasons why we may not be ready for robot-run hospitals. First and foremost, it seems that we are all a little too attached to human attention and interaction, and that is not something we are willing to part with quite yet.