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Medical robot is doctor's eyes on battlefield

By Fred Tasker

McClatchy Newspapers

An American soldier is hit by enemy fire in Iraq. A Humvee speeds him to a field hospital just outside the combat area. He looks up groggily to see a robot peering down at him.

"How ya doing, soldier?" asks the robot.

Its face is a TV monitor displaying the image of an expert trauma surgeon sitting at a laptop in the Ryder Trauma Center at the University of Miami/Jackson Medical Center, 11,200 miles away. The robot sends the soldier's image and voice to the distant doctor.

Under the guidance of the Ryder surgeon, doctors and nurses in the distant field hospital tend the soldier's wounds.

The robot doesn't touch the patient, but it lets the doctor from afar see and hear the patient and the on-site doctors, and let's them see and hear the distant doctor, carrying on a conversation.

It's a scenario that could happen within a year, under a final-phase trial going on now at Ryder in conjunction with the U.S. Army Trauma Training Center, the American Telemedicine Association, Qualcomm, which provides the broadband connectivity, and InTouch Health, maker of the RP-7 robot.

"This is an incredible piece of technology," said Dr. Jeffrey Augenstein, director of the trauma center. "It's OnStar on steroids."

In its final testing phase, the RP-7 is working at Jackson, rolling from bed-to-bed doing patient rounds in the hospital's 25-bed Intensive Care Unit. The robot stands about 5 feet tall and rotates the TV monitor that serves as its face much like a human head. It is communicating with an expert doctor 100 feet away in the same building.

"So far it's been positive," Augenstein said. "The patients see it as TV. They're willing to suspend their disbelief."

It's important, he said, that a doctor or nurse be there with the patient, so the robot isn't acting alone.

With expert trauma care surgeons in ever shorter supply relative to demand, doctors hope the robot will extend their reach, so a doctor could examine a patient and give advice from his laptop in his office, at home, even from a restaurant.

In a year or two, an InTouch spokesman said, the doctor might operate the robot from his or her cell phone.

In a demonstration at Ryder last week, a pretend patient was rolled into an emergency room, his neck in a brace, a bloody bandage on his head, a gaping wound on his left thigh.

"I can't breathe," he said weakly, groaning.

"Relax. You're going to be all right," said Dr. Antonio Marttos, director of trauma telemedicine _ the face and voice in the monitor.

As an in-person doctor and nurse took the patient's vital signs and pretended to insert a breathing tube into his chest, the doctor in the monitor checked off the information and gave advice.

Under development now is a robotic attachment that could act as a stethoscope, ultrasound probe and other instruments, giving the distant doctor more direct control.

An RP-7 robot is on the ground now in Iraq, at a secret location, as part of the trial. When it goes into use is up to the military.

Part of the trial at Ryder is to perfect communication between on-site and distant doctors.

"When he says, 'Snip that artery,' you want to be sure you're talking about the same artery," Augenstein said.

The U.S. Army Training Center at Jackson provides trauma care training to most of the combat medical units that go to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Augenstein hopes the robots can have local, civilian applications as well _ for example, providing a higher level of expertise to Jackson's satellite hospitals. He said the state of Florida is funding a program to interconnect the robots to 20 trauma care centers around the state.

When in full service, the robot will lease to hospitals for $6,000 to $8,000 a month.