Ever since iRobot announced its Healthcare Robotics division in 2009, we've been speculating about what the company would come up with. Our first guess was a telepresence platform (based on the ConnectR), but when we met Ava in January of 2011, that healthcare-telepresence idea got super-sized. A year ago this week, iRobot partnered with InTouch Health to "revolutionize how people communicate and deliver information through remote presence," and now it's looking like our prediction was pretty darn close, as iRobot and InTouch are today officially unveiling the RP-VITA, an Ava-based telemedicine platform for hospitals. We spoke with InTouch chairman and CEO Yulun Wang along with iRobot senior VP Glen Weinstein to get you all the details.
RP-VITA stands for "Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant." Beyond simply providing a doctor with the ability to directly interact with patients from just about anywhere in the world, here's a brief rundown on what makes the RP-VITA unique among other telepresence platforms, straight from the press release:
- An enhanced navigation capability that enables the RP-VITA to better manage driving and navigation elements so the health care professional can put more focus on patient care tasks. State‐of‐the-art mapping and Obstacle Detection Obstacle Avoidance (ODOA) technologies allow safe, fast, and highly flexible navigation in a clinical environment.
- An additional capability for the RP-VITA incorporates autonomous navigation and is being submitted to the FDA for 510(k) clearance. This capability will allow a remote clinician or bedside nurse to send the RP-VITA to a target destination with a single click, enabling a number of breakthrough clinical applications. InTouch Health anticipates clearance for this feature in Q4 2012.
- Real-time access to important clinical data, enabling a range of new workflow improvements for physicians, nurses and other patient care team members. For example, the RP-VITA can be integrated with live patient data from the electronic medical record and is equipped with the ability to connect with diagnostic devices such as otoscopes and ultrasound. It comes equipped with the latest electronic stethoscope.
- A new, simple to use iPad1 user interface will enable quick and easy navigation to anywhere the RP-VITA needs to go, as well as interaction with the patient, family and care team.
Back when iRobot first came up with Ava, it wasn't really sure what to do with the robot. "We were using [Ava] as a technology demonstration platform," explained Glen Weinstein. "We didn't yet know what markets we might be able to apply that technology in, but we knew that we had something. What we had built was, we thought, a state-of-the-art robot for operating in dynamic environments where people are moving around and where the 'map' isn't always completely static." Healthcare was always a fairly logical step in which to take Ava, but iRobot didn't have a heck of a lot of experience with hospitals and doctors, which is where the 2011 partnership with InTouch came in to play.
InTouch, it's important to note, already has a fairly sophisticated telemedicine platform: the RP-7. InTouch knows what it's like to intermix robots with doctors and patients in a hospital environment, but there's more to this than just functionality: as a medical device controlled by a doctor who may be making critical care decisions, the robot itself has to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And that's just for telepresence: RP-VITA still has to go through a separate certification process to allow it to navigate autonomously in places where having a software or hardware issue could have immediate consequences to patients, and to make this work, Ava's original sensor suite has been optimized for performance in a hospital environment, giving the robot the ability to spot things like IV lines and glass doors. This "point and go" style of navigation, where a doctor can just click somewhere on a map of the hospital and the robot will get itself there safely, makes the RP-VITA uniquely user-friendly.
So that's all pretty cool then, but at first glance, RP-VITA might just seem like another obstacle between a doctor interacting directly with a patient. In fact, iRobot and InTouch argue that the opposite is true. "Healthcare delivery is about getting the right expertise to the right place at the right time to do the right thing," says Weinstein, "and the reality is we don't do that very well. This need is most critical where the patient could suffer a potential life-threatening condition which is unscheduled. In the ICU [Intensive Care Unit] that happens all the time." Certain inconvenient restraints imposed by physics and biology dictate that doctors can't always be exactly where they need to be exactly when they need to be there, and if a doctor happens to be (say) at home and asleep when a patient needs them, it's much faster and easier for the doctor to simply log into a robot than to drive to the hospital. Obviously, having a doctor available through an RP-VITA is not the same as having a doctor available in person, but arguably, in many situations this is outweighed by having a doctor available remotely in 30 seconds as opposed to in person in 20 minutes or not at all.
To make a remote doctor as effective as possible, the RP-VITA allows all kinds of Class II medical devices to be plugged directly into the robot, which will stream data back to the physician in real time. A digital stethoscope is built right in, but you can also plug in (for example) an ultrasound machine, and the doctor will be able to see streaming video. Also, to the extent that the hospital has digitized medical records, all of that information can be made available through the RP-VITA interface as well. Without any manipulators, the robot does need a little bit of assisting, but maybe at some point in the future iRobot will duct-tape a PackBot onto the side of RP-VITA and let doctors remotely control their stethoscopes that way. Just an idea.
It's easy to talk about how much potential improvement the RP-VITA can bring to healthcare, but how effective is it (from the patient's perspective) in improving lives, especially considering that this is, after all, a robot? InTouch's Yulun Wang points out that the existing InTouch RP-7 platform already mediates about 70,000 doctor-patient interactions every year. "When InTouch first went into business, the big question that physician had was 'how will my patients respond?' That actually is now going by the wayside, because we're starting to get enough of [the robots] out there that that's no longer an issue. Patients respond extremely well." iRobot and InTouch have had the RP-VITA robots out in the wild for testing for a little while now, and they're willing to share at least a few general stats on effectiveness: in the ICU, for example, having this kind of technology available has been shown to lower length of stay, reduce daily medications, and prevent a significant percentage of medical errors.
"My belief is that the market will be very excited about this new technology," Wang told us. InTouch is planning to sell RP-VITA as part of an integrated cloud-based service, with a per-unit price of somewhere between $4,000 and $6,000 per month. In the context of the healthcare system, this is really not that much money, especially for what iRobot and InTouch call "a state-of-the-art, breakthrough robot, which is unmatched in terms of its sophistication and capabilities in terms of bringing something new. iRobot has long been looking for its entree into the healthcare market, and we really think we've done it right."
Looking farther ahead, iRobot wants to expand the hybrid autonomous telepresence capabilities of this platform to tasks like business telepresence and industrial security. The former will be an interesting category for iRobot to tackle: there are already a fair number of players in that space (including Vgo, Anybots, and Suitable Technologies, to name just a few), and it's been hard for anybody to really get a foothold. If iRobot can leverage RP-VITA's skill at autonomous navigation in dynamic environments, there could certainly be some potential there, and we'll be watching closely over the next six months to a year to see how this new telemedicine platform ultimately plays out.
[ iRobot ]
[ InTouch Health ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.