Dr. Who

Dave Wilson examines the horrific implications of using medical ‘robots’ to cover ward rounds.

“…time travel is like visiting Paris. You can’t just read the guidebook; you’ve got to throw yourself in, eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double, and end up kissing complete strangers! Or is that just me?” – Dr. Who, “The Long Game.”

A few years ago, while driving up to a trade show in the lush leafy suburbs of Birmingham, I was struck down by a terrible pain. Fortunately, as chance would have it, I was no less than ten miles from Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge. And so, doubled over in agony, I painstakingly piloted my vehicle towards the entrance of the Emergency Department.

Needless to say, I never made it up to the NEC that year. Instead, I was quickly admitted into the hospital, where to the absolute horror of my family, I was detained for three days. But if the truth be known, aside from the pain of it all, it was quite a pleasant experience. A bit like staying in a five star hotel surrounded by supermodels (Surely, nurses? – Ed) who attended to my every need.

So you can imagine my initial horror when I learnt of the pilot scheme being run at another UK hospital – this time St Mary’s NHS Trust and Imperial College in London – where medical ‘robots’ are now covering ward rounds.

These so-called Remote Presence (RP6) robots allow a medical expert to visually examine and communicate with a patient from anywhere in the world using wireless technology.

Unfortunately, the RP6 robots in question are not half as realistic as the androids in that sci-fi classic Westworld. Instead, they looks more like flat-panel TVs on wheels.

Neverthless, a doctor ‘driving’ one via a joystick from a remote site can see a patient, ask questions, read patient records and view X-rays. And the patient can see the doctor’s face on the robot’s screen while all this is happening.

Parv Sains, a Surgical Specialist Resistrar and Research Fellow At Imperial, said that one of the benefits of the robot includes the fact that patients can now gain direct access to the doctor who performed their surgery, even if the doctor cannot physically attend the patient’s bedside.

“If a specialist is at a conference in California, but their medical opinion is needed for a St Mary’s patient, the RP6 robot provides an instant and local link at any time of the day or night,“ he said.

But there are no plans to let these particular robots take over the role of all doctors on ward rounds. Better yet, the hospital in question made no mention of any sort of companion to the RP6 that might, in the future, be engaged in fullfilling the duties of the nursing staff.

You can imagine what a sigh of relief emanated from the desk of the editor when I heard that. Especially, if you, like me, have ever been detained in Addenbrookes for any length of time.