Healthcare, like other services, requires getting appropriate expertise to the place where it is needed at the right time. Requirements like these become critical when a patient faces a sudden and unpredictable life-threatening condition. The latter is a near-routine occurrence in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). Still, a host of factors make it impossible for clinicians to be present at every point in the ICU, all the time.
Early acceptance of robotic telepresence
Such shortcomings are sought to be addressed by ICU robots, one of the latest applications in the emerging field of ‘robotic telepresence’. The use of ICU robots, also referred to as teleoperated medical devices, is growing rapidly as a supplement for patient care in the ICU. In its early stages, healthcare providers were overwhelmingly convinced of their potential. In September 2012, for example, a survey of over 10,000 ICU robotic interventions in the journal ‘Telemedicine journal and e-health’ found 100 percent of practitioners considered the robot to improve both patient care and patient satisfaction.
Autonomous, optimised for ICU, hospital environment
ICU robots essentially provide access for physicians and other specialists to implement a variety of medical procedures round-the-clock, while reducing delays for difficult admissions or procedures.
The robots can be pre-programmed to drive on their own around an ICU, or this mode can be overridden and controlled by an individual, located on the premises, at a facility near by or thousands of kilometres away, via a keyboard or joystick.
The robotic sensors are optimized to perform in a hospital environment, enabling the robot to identify and avoid things like IV lines, cables and glass doors.
Plug-and-play for medical devices
The robot itself contains combinations of display types, microphones, speakers and cameras; these have pan-tilt and zoom capabilities, and are powerful and manoeuvrable enough to permit physicians to view fine details and listen to the smallest sounds.
Typical accessories in an ICU robot include an integrated electronic stethoscope to allow physicians to listen remotely to heart and lung sounds using earbuds. However, most Class II medical devices can be plugged into the robot, which streams data back in real time. On the other side, robots can also access digitized medical records of patients.
Recent innovations include a smartphone application, enabling physicians to access the robot’s camera. Another is ‘point and click’ navigation, by virtue of which a user can simply click somewhere on a map of the hospital and the robot gets itself there.
UCLA pioneers ICU robot
The history of ICU robotics dates to 2005, when the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center became the world’s first hospital to introduce a robot in its neurosurgery intensive care unit under a US military-funded pilot project. The UCLA pilot saw intensivists (clinicians specialized in the care of critically ill patients) monitoring patients from their homes and offices.
The robot was RP-6, developed by California-based InTouch, a company known for its ‘auto-drive’ robotics technology used in defence and public safety. Controlled by a webcam and joystick over a broadband connection, the 65 inch (166 cm) wheeled robot boasted 8-hour runtime from a single charge. Onwards from 2006, InTouch offered hospitals an option to rent the RP-6 for USD 4,000 a month, or buy it outright for USD 120,000. Its earliest customers included Detroit Medical Center and Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital.
The iRobot-InTouch Health Alliance
Meanwhile, another US company iRobot (vendor of the robotic household vacuum, Roomba) set up a Healthcare Robotics division in 2009.
In 2011, iRobot and InTouch Health announced an alliance targeting healthcare. The next year they unveiled the RP-VITA (Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant), a robot which went beyond simply providing remote interactive capability between a clinician and patients to a hugely-enhanced navigation capability, based on sophisticated mapping and obstacle detection and avoidance technologies tailored to a hospital environment. Its aim was to free the clinician for clinical tasks.
The most revolutionary capability of RP-VITA was autonomous navigation, which was submitted to the the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for 510(k) approval. In January 2013, the FDA cleared RP-VITA, making it the first autonomously navigating telepresence robot in healthcare, with clearance for use before, during and after surgery and for cardiovascular, neurological, prenatal and psychological as well as critical care.
Demand driven by range of factors
The key drivers of demand for ICU robots today include time factors (urgency in ICU cases) and access (unavailability of ICU expertise) in remote areas. Both these are compounded by staff shortages.
There are fewer than 6,000 practising intensivists in the United States today and more than 5 million patients admitted to ICUs annually. A few years ago, Teresa Rincon, chair of the Tele-ICU Committee of the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) noted that the number of intensivists in the US was “not enough for each hospital to have one.” Indeed, it is estimated that only about 37 percent of ICU patients in the US receive intensivist care, although trained intensivists in the ICU correlates to better outcomes and decreased length of stay – both in the ICU and hospital.
The challenge of coma
In terms of urgency, the SCCM notes that up to 58% of emergency department admissions in the US result in an ICU admission.
Following admission, one of the major drivers of demand for ICU robots is coma. The reliable assessment of comatose patients is always critical. A hospital needs to quickly identify clinical status changes in order to determine and implement appropriate interventions.
In January 2017, the prestigious Mayo Clinic published results from a 15-month study of 100 patients, which is reported as the first to look specifically at telemedicine in assessing patients in coma. The results suggest that patients with depressed levels of consciousness can be assessed reliably through telemedicine.
Another urgent complication is delirium. Delirium incidence has been estimated at over 80% in critically ill patients. This is accompanied by a threefold increase in mortality risk, according to an oft-cited study in an April 2004 issue of the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’.
Medical emergencies like coma and delirium require the presence of highly qualified clinicians, but as discussed previously, real-life constraints limit their availability round-the-clock.
Access is another crucial consideration. Most hospitals simply lack the patient volume to employ full-time intensivists in fields like neonatology, while their availability is limited for the same reason in remote rural locations.
The first attempts to address such challenges were centred on telemedicine or Tele-ICU care, involving continuous surveillance and interactive care by offsite clinicians. This was achieved by video observation of the patient and interrogation of equipment, along with instructions conveyed to other ICU staff.
Although more studies are needed, there is evidence of an association of the Tele-ICU with lower mortality and shorter length of stay in both the ICU as well as the hospital. Another benefit is that a Tele-ICU enables stricter adherence to guidelines.
US leads the way
Europe was a relative latecomer to ICU telemedicine, with a near-total focus on teleconsultation and almost-total reliance on the US experience.
For example, Britain’s NHS refers extensively to US studies on ICU telemedicine in its own Technology Enabled Care Services (TECS) Evidence Database, while the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has opened a Tele-ICU centre in Italy, which allows US physicians to perform remote consults for Italian ICU patients.
From telemedicine to robotics: business model turned around
In many senses, ICU robotics have been a natural successor to the Tele-ICU, albeit with a significant reversal in its operating model.
The Tele-ICU functions centrally. Rooms are hard-wired with high-resolution cameras and transmit data to a remote command centre staffed by an intensivist (tele-intensivist). The intensivist, who typically covers multiple ICUs, has access to the same clinical information (e.g. vital signs, lab values, notes, physician orders etc.) as the ICU bedside team consisting of nurses, respiratory therapists, non-ICU physician and transfers instructions to them via a two-way communication link. Robotics, driven by advances in technology and mobility, have made it possible for the Tele-ICU care model to become decentralized. The ICU robot is controlled wirelessly by the tele-intensivist, who is freed from a dedicated command centre, and can indeed be just about anywhere. The robot moves from room to room, examining patients based on instructions from the intensivist and interacting as required with staff. The latter interaction is now seen to be far more efficient, since it occurs only after the intensivist has given instructions on the procedures which need to be performed on a patient.
The cost factor
ICU robots seem to also address another major limitation of Tele-ICU, namely cost. Most studies on Tele-ICU have found that though the technologies deployed have been adequate, they have also been much too expensive.
In the US, some hospitals collided with reality, quickly and harshly, “removing tele-ICUs after outcomes failed to justify the costs.” A study in December 2009, in the prestigious ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’ also questioned a key maxim of the Tele-ICU, pointing to evidence that remote monitoring of patients in ICUs was not associated with an overall improvement in the risk of death or length of stay in the ICU or hospital.
Perspectives have been similar in Europe. For example, a Dutch study published in 2011 in the ‘Netherlands Journal of Critical Care’ concluded that hospitals were unlikely to see the “enormous” investment entailed by a tele-ICU as being cost-effective. Concerns about Tele-ICUs were also echoed the same year in Canada, where critical care clinicians, writing in the ‘Journal of Critical Care’ expressed scepticism regarding the ability of a Tele-ICU to address challenges of human resource limitation or even deliver quality care.
The personal touch
While a conclusive answer to the question of cost-effectiveness of OCU robots will require a larger user base, one powerful advantage seems to be the ability to target the eventual subject of the healthcare process, the patient. According to Paul Vespa, a neurosurgeon at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine patients “interact with the robot as if it is a person.”
Steps to realize full potential
Before there is growth in numbers of ICU robots, some of the factors which will need to be addressed have been identified in a ‘Journal of Critical Care’ article in December 2013 by the Center for Comprehensive Access and Delivery Research and Evaluation, Iowa City, US.
These consist of formal training and orientation, identification of roles, responsibilities, and expectations, needs assessment, and administrative support and organization. Failure to adopt these, say the authors, will mean ICU robots may not see their full potential realized.