Robotic breast exam

Women living in remote areas will someday be able to have a potentially life-saving breast exam thanks to robotic technology being developed at Michigan State University.


Women living in remote areas who don’t have easy access to health care will someday be able to have a potentially life-saving breast exam thanks to robotic technology being developed at Michigan State University.

Physicians from MSU’s Department of Surgery are teaming with researchers in the College of Engineering to develop a robotic device that can check for lumps and other abnormalities in a woman’s breast and, at the same time, get an ultrasound image.

Here’s how it will work: A physician or other health-care provider, located in a hospital or clinic, will slip his or her hand into a glove-like instrument. That will allow him or her to move the robotic arm that is with the patient in a remote location.

“That arm, which actually looks like a hand, is equipped with sensors,” said Carol Slomski, chairperson of MSU’s Department of Surgery and co-director of the project. “As the hand touches the patient, the sensation from this touch comes back into my hand. When the robotic fingers feel a lump or some other abnormality, I also feel it.”

The robotic hand will also be equipped with an ultrasound transducer that will collect and transmit back to the health-care provider an image of what he or she is feeling. The system also will have video and audio capabilities, so patient and physician can directly communicate.

“There are so many benefits to this technology,” Slomski said. “Not only does it provide health care for people in remote locations, it also can put an experienced provider at the other end. It’s like getting a secondary consult.

“Just because you’re located in the Upper Peninsula or even Botswana, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a sophisticated diagnostic or therapeutic procedure.”

“Having the capability of ultrasound and palpation simultaneously is a major advantage,” said Ranjan Mukherjee, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who is leading the team building the device. “Often the ultrasound and exam are done separately. But if the physician can look at the image and feel what he or she is seeing, it’s a huge advantage.”

The computers at the two sites are linked through an Internet connection, Mukherjee said.

“The time delay for signal transmission can cause potential problems in operation of the device, but we are developing control strategies to deal with this problem adequately,” he said. “Plus, we have built safeguards into the robot to prevent it from pushing too hard or doing anything to harm the patient.”

Slomski said that with a potential shortage of surgeons looming, especially those located in more remote areas, technology such as this will make life easier for both patient and health-care provider.

“If a surgeon located in a small town has the technology to access someone at a bigger hospital or clinic, this could be a tremendous help for him or her and the patient,” she said.

Other partners in the project are Ning Xi, professor of electrical and computer engineering; Matt Mutka, associate professor of computer science and engineering; and Keith Apelgren, professor of surgery.