University of South Alabama Medical Center has begun a federally funded trial that will explore the use of robots to improve patient access to care. For the next few months, health care providers at USA Medical Center in Mobile will use remote presence technology developed by InTouch Health, Inc., to make "virtual" visits to patients and their families.
Through a robot companion named SAM, an acronym for South Alabama Medicine, caregivers in a remote location can move, see, hear and talk to patients, families and staff, as if they were there. The goal is to find ways the remote presence technology can improve communication between patients and their caregivers, including medically underserved rural areas.
In keeping with USA's academic health care research mission, physicians and nurses at USA Medical Center will use the robot companion on atemporary, trial basis to explore new ways to maximize the value of available personnel. USA Medical Center is the first acute care hospital to use the robot companion to explore solutions to the nation's nursing shortage. They join Johns Hopkins University in using the robot for physician rounding.
Contact: Barbara Shaw, USA Hospitals Public Relations, (251) 471-7262
"One of the benefits of this type of technology is it allows a caregiver to see and interact with patients from their office, home or other equipped location," said Carl Taylor, director of USA's Office of Emerging Health Technology. " This gives the patient the benefit of being seen by a clinical expert, which can improve their outcome, and saves the caregiver travel time and energy, which in turn reduces stress."
Communication technology, or telemedicine, has been used extensively by USA to provide consultations to rural hospitals in specialties including radiology, neonatology and trauma. The robot is another tool now available.
"The caregiver can be anywhere in the world with internet access," said Dr. Dan Roach, medical information coordinator for USA's study. "They actually control the robot with a joystick that drives it, moves its head, can zoom in and look at monitors or wounds, talk to the patient and evaluate the patient much better than they could by talking over the phone."
Dr. Joseph Amato, assistant professor of medicine at USA who has been using the robot to round with residents says the technology offers advantages for physicians and patients.
"It gives you an opportunity to see patients several times a day if needed, or if their condition warrants. It makes it easier for physicians," said Amato. "Patients like the fact they are getting state of the art technology and they enjoy seeing their physician more than once during the day," he added.
One unique aspect of USA's trials is that it will be asking the nursing staff to provide input on the value of the robot in patient care. Despite significant efforts at the state and federal levels, staffing shortages are expected to increase over the coming decade. Carolyn Williams, a nurse manager at USA Medical Center says nurses are very interested in exploring applications for the robot in their duties.
"We're going to use it to communicate with patients and patient family members and to give us visuals on patients who need close observation," said Williams. " I don't see the technology ever replacing nurses, but it does have the potential to enhance the role of nurses and make them more effective and efficient."
USA hopes to expand the study to include the emergency department and trauma services. USA Medical Center is the region's only Level I trauma center serving the Gulf Coast areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
Funding for the study is made available by a grant from the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth.