Robot Link Boosts Rural Health Care

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Stormont-Vail Hospitalist Dr. Auriel Tan pulls his chair up to a laptop, plugs in his headphones and, with a few clicks, is listening to heart and breath sounds of a patient.

The "patient" is a staff member at Sabetha Community Hospital, some 60 miles away. Their staff and Dr. Tan were training on a new system linking the two facilities that went live last week.

Dr. Tan says the evaluation is much like being right at the patient's bedside.

"I cannot feel. I cannot smell. But I can listen and I can talk and I can communicate - and that's important in patient care," he said.

The communication is made possible through a remote presence robot known as the RP Lite. The robot side, in Sabetha, looks like a video monitor and camera mounted on a stick that can be wheeled around the room or to wherever in the facility it might be needed.

Doctors at Stormont log on thru a laptop with special software including a stethoscope accessory. They not only can talk and listen, but they also can remotely control the camera - pan, tilt and zoom - to get a clear look at scans or other information.

The link is an easy way for a smaller facility like Sabetha to expand its resources.

Dr. Christian Tramp of Sabetha Community Hospital says if a critically ill patient comes to their facility, they can use the link to get an opinion from the internist on how to care for the patient.

The information means decisions can be made quickly on whether to move a patient to a larger facility or whether the Stormont doctors and specialists can provide support to care for the patient closer to home.

Dr. Tan says good outcomes depend on both availability of resources and quick treatment. The remote link, he says, accomplishes both.

Plus, Dr. Tramp says the possibility of being able to keep patients in their own community for treatment is a plus for both them and for health care in their area in general.

If it's successful, Stormont hopes to partner with more facilities in the future.

Sabetha's school held a contest to name the robot . An eighth grade boy came up with the winner -- "MEL." It stands for medical emergency liberator.