'Robot doctor' offers quicker treatment for stroke victims


STROKE PATIENTS could receive better and more rapid treatment at the hands of a "robot doctor" if hospitals win funding for the cutting-edge device, it has been claimed.

The Remote Presence (RP7) device, which would be used primarily in the accident and emergency department of a hospital, would allow stroke specialists to examine patients from a remote location, via a laptop, to decide how treatment should progress with no needless delays.

Currently on trial at Dublin's Tallaght hospital, the RP7, which is controlled by the doctor through a joystick to change its vantage point if needed, uses high-resolution cameras to link specialists with the patient over a broadband connection. These cameras can be used to examine patients, check on vital signs and communicate with the patient or next of kin. Treating stroke patients is time-sensitive, as studies have shown that some patients have a better chance of making a reasonable recovery if a clot-busting drug is administered within a three-hour window.

If a stroke specialist is not available in that timeframe, the prognosis for patients can be worsened.

"Strokes happen all hours of the night, 24/7, at weekends, bank holidays, and one of the challenges we have is how do we give this treatment and make it available in every accident and emergency department that is receiving stroke patients," said Dr Ronan Collins, geriatrician and stroke specialist at Tallaght hospital.

If funding for the device is approved, it will enable stroke specialists within the Dublin mid-Leinster stroke network to gain access to specialists around the clock. This network includes Mullingar, Naas, Tullamore and Portlaoise hospitals. The unit will cost about €65,000 a year, but experts say that the improvement in prognosis could eliminate the need for future costly treatment and support.

The RP7 is not limited to just stroke treatment. Dr Collins explained that it could be used for everything from paediatric care to vascular surgery.

The robot doctor might not be to everyone's liking, but studies in the US into patient acceptability have shown that patients felt the care provided through the device was at least as good as that provided by a physician in person.

Dr Collins is hoping the pilot system will be funded by an innovation grant from the Health Service Executive. Once the funding is in place, the RP7 can be installed in the five hospitals within a couple of weeks."I don't think there is anything more innovative than this," Dr Collins said.