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Medical Robots Continue to Revolutionize Healthcare

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted July 24, 2007

Baltimore, Md.When it comes to what people actually do when they are at work over the course of a long day, there is one profession whose daily grind absolutely astounds me. When it comes to a combination of long hours, skills, and smarts, these people are practically from another planet. That’s how different their work day is from what the rest of us do.

I’m talking, of course, about surgeons.

I mean, think about it. Most people can barely hang a shelf or make themselves something as simple as an omelet, let alone crack open a chest and save a life. And to be honest, that really only scratches the surface of what these extraordinary people do day in and day out in hospitals all around the world.

But as remarkable and as gifted as these top docs are, they are at least like the rest us in one respect–they have a tough time being in two places at once.

That is, until now.

A combination of the internet and the increased use of medical robots in hospitals around the world has given these docs a way to extend their presence well beyond their primary locations.

The latest advancement involves "robotic telerounding," which in many ways is like a videoconference on wheels. It allows surgeons to make their post-operative rounds without ever actually entering the hospital.

In practice, it looks like something straight out of "The Jetsons."

Developed by In Touch Health, the six-foot tall robot that makes the rounds is equipped with a 15-inch flat screen, two high-resolution cameras, and a microphone. Its proprietary video conferencing system enables the device to conduct a two way conversation/visit between a patient and a doctor, who remotely controls the robot through an internet connection.

In fact, the doctor actually drives the robot through the hospital to each patient’s room to make his rounds for the day. Using the robot, the surgeon can check the patient’s vital signs, inspect incisions, and discuss treatment options with both the patient and a nurse in real-time video–just as if the doctor was actually in the room.

But the robots are not just simply a tool of convenience for busy surgeons. According to the data, there are numerous other benefits from the robotic visits.

New research published in the July issue of the American College of Surgeons shows that robotic telerounding may also significantly reduce the length of stay for postoperative patients, reducing their overall costs.

The study, conducted at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, found that following robotic rounds 77 percent of the patients who underwent laparoscopic gastric bypass for morbid obesity were released on the first postoperative day. In contrast, none of the patients that were visited in person by their surgeons were released on the first day.

As a result, the "telerounding" surgeons were able to reduce the length of stay for their patients from 2.33 days to only 1.26 days versus their in-the-flesh counterparts. The reduced number of days translated into a total savings of $14,378 in room and board for the group. Additionally, the early discharges created the availability of more beds, resulting in a gain of $219,579 for the hospital.

Said the study’s lead author, Alex Gandas MD, "We know from previous studies that patient satisfaction was high with robotic telerounding, but we wanted to learn if it also could deliver cost savings, and there is no question that it does."

The rolling robotic doctor, though, is just part of a deeper trend within the healthcare industry towards robotic devices of all kinds that have the power to revolutionize the way we will receive healthcare in the future.

Among them is a company that we have talked about before in these pages, Intuitive Surgical (ISRG: NASDAQ). The company is up nearly 2,600% in as little as four years.

Its robot, the "Da Vinci Surgical System," has revolutionized several types of surgeries, including prostatectomies, hysterectomies, delicate heart surgeries, and gastric bypasses, to name just a few of its many applications.

As a result, sales at the company have grown from $138 million in 2004 to a projected $559 million in 2007. Not surprisingly, shares of the company have risen to over $200, after reaching lows of $7.52 in 2004.

It’s that type of performance both in share price and practicality that continues to have the industry abuzz over the emergence of these robotic devices in hospitals around the world. Those doctors, after all, aren’t just extraordinary, they are also in short supply.

Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,


Steve Christ, Editor