Aug. 23, 2009— -- Welcome to the future, where your doctor could be hundreds of miles away.
Hospitals long have been a place to use new technologies, and the latest is aimed at helping doctors treat patients in rural areas, where hospitals don't have access to specialized doctors.
The practice, known as telemedicine, is on the rise. According to Datamonitor, hospitals reportedly have invested more than $2 billion just this year and that number is expected to triple by 2012.
Baylor Medical Center in Dallas is one of 250 hospitals across the country that use the RP7i, a robot controlled through the Internet, to help patients in rural Waxahachie, Texas.
The RP7i might remind patients of the "Star Wars" character R2D2. They might even think it's awkward at first, but patients warm up quickly to the 5-foot-4, 220-pound robot. InTouch Health, the company manufacturing the robots, rents them for up to $6,000 a month.
Despite the cost, doctors think the investment is worth the price.
"Ultimately, there is a steep initial cost to have this technology here, but over time it's gonna pay for itself," says Dr. Avian Kidd, medical director at Baylor Medical Center in Waxahachie.
The doctor manipulating the robot sits in a special control room with an Internet connection, two monitors, a mouse and a joystick. To drive the robot around, the doctor simply manipulates the joystick to move the robot back, forward and turn it around.
The doctor can check a patient's heartbeat, x-rays and, if they need to take a closer look at the patient, it's as easy as clicking the mouse.
Doctors Treat Patients From a Distance
Dr. Stephanie Woolley, an intensivist at Baylor Medical Center, has been using the robot they have nicknamed "Bessy" for a few months and already notices the benefits.
"Physically seeing the patient actually is very valuable to me because I can gather a huge amount of information just being able to look at the patient that I can't do just speaking on the phone," she says. "I am able to visualize everything that I could do as if I were standing right there."
Seeing these patients remotely means fewer transfers by ambulance and helicopter, and it gives patients in rural hospitals access to specialists they could not see otherwise.
Doctors at Lahey Cline in Boston can see patients nearly 800 miles away on the island of Bermuda, while specialist at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland in Pontiac, Mich., have 32 robots deployed across the state of Michigan to help treat stroke patients.
But at a time when patients are already complaining about doctors' bedside manners, is turning a doctor into a robot the answer? Patients and doctors seem to agree it looks more awkward than it is.
Patient who have encountered their doctors say it is more like hopping online and chatting with people -- or even using video chat Web site Skype.
"It was different," said Barbara Raymundo, 26, who is being treated by Dr. Woolley for pancreatitis. "I don't think it's any different than when you get online and chat to somebody on the Internet. So why not a doctor?"
Raymundo's family was a bit more skeptical, but her husband, Raymundo, was just glad that his wife didn't need to be transferred to Dallas, which would have taken them away from their home and six children.
"It was weird," he said about the experience. "Instead of a person it's a robot."