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Dr Robot on duty, patients are fine
A robot (right) links the doctor on its screen with his patient in hospital

Washington, July 6: Ries Daniel was waiting in his hospital room the morning after bladder surgery when the door finally swung open. But it wasn’t his doctor. Instead, a robot rolled in, wheeled over and pivoted its 15-inch video-screen “head” toward the 80-year-old lying in his bed at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“Good morning,” said a voice from the robot’s speaker.

It was Louis Kavoussi, Daniel’s urologist. His face peered down from the screen atop the five-and-a-half foot-tall device dubbed Dr. Robot. “So, how was your evening' No problems'”

Studying his patient through an image beamed back to his office by Dr. Robot’s video camera, Kavoussi was concerned because Daniel had run a fever overnight and developed a cough. “You’re not looking as good as yesterday,” said Kavoussi, zooming in the camera for a closer look after having focused on Daniel’s chart moments before.

“I didn’t have my martini,” said Daniel, managing a smile.

“Well, let’s see how you are feeling later on today,” Kavoussi said. “If you’re feeling better, we’ll send you home, all right'”

After telling Daniel that he was ordering a chest X-ray and other tests, Kavoussi tweaked a joystick to manoeuver the robot back to the hallway.

Such robot-assisted exchanges are being repeated in dozens of hospitals across the US by doctors who use the machines to make their rounds, monitor intensive-care units, respond to emergency calls and consult other physicians.

Proponents say this and other new “telemedicine” technologies are allowing doctors to use their time more efficiently and serve more patients, often at odd hours or in remote places where the sick would otherwise have a hard time seeing a doctor.

Sceptics, however, fear that the technology is further depersonalising health care, accelerating the trend of doctors spending less and less time with their patients, and eroding what remains of the doctor-patient relationship.

“This is a triumph of the model of medicine that has abandoned the idea of personal interaction and providing comfort in favor of a model of the patient-physician interaction as essentially an exchange of information,” said David Magnus, a Stanford University bioethicist.

The need, proponents say, is increasing as the population ages and further strains a system already experiencing a shortage of doctors and nurses.

While acknowledging possible benefits, sceptics worry that technology will be used as an inferior quick fix for doctor and nurse shortages and as a way to save money at patients’ expense. Doctors seeing patients via video could easily miss subtle but important clues, such as a patient’s posture, a slight tremble or even how someone smells.

Kavoussi, the urologist at Johns Hopkins, has conducted studies evaluating the robot, which he said have shown that it improves efficiency and that patients like it as much as face-to-face meetings.

Daniel and another patient Kavoussi “visited” the same day said they could see the advantages of the robot and found the experience interesting. But both added that they prefer to see their doctor in the flesh.

“I don’t object to it,” Daniel said, but “I think person-to-person is better than person-to-machine. When the chips are down, I want the doctor.”

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