Building a Connected Healthcare Network, One Robot at a Time

Telemedicine robots are helping to deliver a connected healthcare network across the nation to result in better patient care.

There is a shortage of healthcare workers in America; 40% of nurses in the developed world will leave the workforce by 2023 according to one report. The shortage of healthcare specialists is acutely felt in rural areas with fewer providers. Roughly 2,000 rural hospitals are scattered throughout the US, according to a 2014 report on healthcare, and those rural hospitals still maintain paper files (although the call for Electronic Health Records (EHR) is pushing for widespread digitization). In answer to a deepening shortage of healthcare physicians and specialists, telecommunication through autonomous, hospital-safe robotics is growing – and that’s a very good thing.
medical

"We have been using cast urethanes from Stratasys Direct Manufacturing for many, many years. We start with SLA 3D printing for prototype parts and move to cast urethanes for lower volume production."

Cloud enabled healthcare networks are forming across the country, according to InTouch Health. “A hub and spoke model is forming from hospital networking,” explains Danny Sanchez, an engineer with InTouch Health. “Larger hub hospitals, with access to diverse and expert specialists, are collaborating and interacting with various spoke hospitals, which don’t have the same access to specialized care, to answer patient needs.” InTouch Health, along with iRobot, is the creator of RP-VITA, a telemedicine robot who is gradually permeating hospital care reserves across North America. RP-VITA’s early cousins first appeared in assisted living homes in the early 2000s to give the elderly easier access to virtual on-site and on-call physicians.

Telemedicine robots bridge gaps in hospital resources by providing access to remote specialists through telecommunication. Their presence answers to a larger gap in hospital digitization. Especially in rural hospitals, going digital is a convoluted process; telemedicine robotics are one way to provide a seamless, integrated transition to the digital realm.

RP-VITA operates remotely and autonomously, adeptly maneuvering hospital floors and avoiding bed carts or meandering convalescents, through depth mapping sensors. Cameras record and capture high resolution, close-up images of patient features – which are transferred to the off-site doctor – from the patient’s hospital bed. “RP-VITA brings together a specialist operating remotely, the physician onsite and the patient in the room, essentially enabling team based care,” says Sanchez. “Together, the specialist and onsite physician collaborate and ensure the best outcome for the patient without even being in the same room, let alone the same country.” Telemedicine robotics like RP-VITA maximizes the distribution of specialist care more effectively through this remote consultancy and moderating of patients.

USB ports along RP-VITA’s casing put data transfer right at the hands of the robot. While the off-site doctor has visual communication with the patient, nurses and other onsite providers load X-rays and data into RP-VITA which then transfers that information to the doctor in real time. It’s the next best thing to being there, and a huge step towards being everywhere without teleportation (which we hear is still a really long way off).

The telemedicine robot’s casings were mainly manufactured in the United States through a progressive manufacturing process known as QuantumCast™ cast urethanes. The process, developed by an American company called Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, is an alternative to conventional tooling and molding; cost is key in the future of healthcare, where lowering costs while maintaining optimal care is continuously being reviewed. Retaining specialist care, distributing that care to a wider patient base and providing an increasingly larger volume of primary healthcare to more and more patients on insurance plans necessitates the adoption of robotics manufactured optimally for hospitals and cost.

To manufacture for a sterile environment while negating the need (and cost) of traditional manufacturing required some heavy lifting; Stratasys Direct Manufacturing spent nearly half a decade perfecting the casting process to incorporate ROHS, ROHS2, REACH and SVHC compliant materials and evolving composite-urethane hybrid applications. The company was primarily a 3D printing company at the time, beginning their urethane division in 2001 as an alternative for medical manufacturers who needed products faster and in lower volumes than offshore conventional methods could deliver. Speeding up the development of medical devices meant speeding up prototyping and production processes, and the R&D paid off for RP-VITA’s predecessors which appeared in assisted living homes as early as 2007.

“We have five other product lines involving telemedicine robotics,” says Sanchez, “and we have been using cast urethanes from Stratasys Direct Manufacturing for many, many years. We start with SLA 3D printing for prototype parts and move to cast urethanes for lower volume production.” Once volumes are sufficient, InTouch invests in tooling and injection molding through Stratasys Direct Manufacturing’s tooling division. “For RP-VITA, we’re using a really good UV and chemically resistant material that doesn’t require post-processing,” explains Sanchez. “For some of our other divisions, we’ve been using cast urethane production parts for 5-7 years.”

RP-VITA is an ambassador of sorts for rural hospitals struggling to evolve into the digital age. When the robot is off-duty as a liaison between specialists and patients, it can be programmed to autonomously check on patients, connect with systems recording patient vital signs and even relay to doctors when a patient may need help; it has the potential to aid nurses – already spread thin over a hospital ward – to audit non-critical conditions. As hospitals join the digital world, we may see more and more robots filling in at hospitals, redefining primary care for the future and for the better.

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