Hospital patients don't mind rounding robots, study says

January 25, 2008

Imagine you're recovering from surgery. A robot whose head is a computer monitor rolls into your room to let you experience a videoconference with your surgeon, whose face is on the screen. Sound appalling? Patients in a real-life study didn't think so.

Imagine you're recovering from surgery. A robot whose head is a computer monitor rolls into your room to let you experience a videoconference with your surgeon, whose face is on the screen. Sound appalling? Patients in a real-life study didn't think so.

The study, published last month in the Archives of Surgery, looked at the use of robotic "telerounding" at three academic medical centers. The 5-foot-5-inch robot, manufactured by a company called InTouch Health, consists of a computerized motor base, a flat-screen monitor, a microphone, and a digital camera that can zoom in to read a chart or study a wound. The rounding physician operates the robot by remote control at a computer workstation equipped with a digital camera, microphone, and joystick. All this technology adds up to live, two-way audio and visual communication between doctor and patient.

In the study, 270 patients who had undergone a urologic procedure were divided into two groups. One group received a bedside visit from their attending surgeon in the flesh. The other group was rounded on by their attending surgeon using the robot. The study found that telerounding proved no better or no worse than traditional rounding in terms of patient safety. Each group had the same level of post-surgical complications and pain, for example. Significantly, surgeons who rounded on patients remotely didn't miss any complications, nor were they late in identifying them. The average length of hospital stay for each group was 2.8 days.

The biggest surprise in the study might be the patient-satisfaction scores—those for the telerounding group basically matched those for the group seen in person by their surgeon. Two-thirds of patients who encountered the rounding robot said it should become a regular part of hospital care. And the same percentage said they'd prefer telerounding by their regular doctor over an in-person visit by a partner.

Improving continuity of care, in fact, is one argument that's marshaled for this kind of videoconferencing. Proponents also tout the technology as a way to extend the expertise of big-city medical specialists to outlying hospitals.

Critics counter that a rounding robot dehumanizes patient care, but the study in the Archives of Surgery took some wind out of that characterization. In a commentary that appeared with the article, a Philadelphia surgeon named Jo Buyske writes: "The importance of human touch turns out not to be in the touch at all; it can be administered by a robot as long there is a familiar face and mind on the other side."

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