At-home Robots Monitor Kids After Surgery

It sounds like a plot straight out of the futuristic sitcom "The Jetsons" -  robots that tend  to and monitor patients recovering from surgery. But such a scenario is no longer science fiction.

Doctors at Children's Hospital Boston have sent robots home with children after their surgeries as part of a pilot program designed to use technology to make post-surgical care easier,  more efficient and less costly.

The $6,000 robot is essentially a teleconferencing system on two wheels, with cameras, audio gear and video screens that allow Children's Hospital Boston doctors to check on their young patients once they're home, and talk with parents or caregivers about their care.

Dr. Hiep Nguyen, director of Children's Hospital's Robotic Surgery Research and Training Center, said he wanted to improve post-surgical care for his young patients by marrying Star Wars-style technology with a medical custom that has gone the way of the phonograph player and the VCR: a doctor's house call.

A high-speed 4G connection allows doctors in Boston to remotely control the 4-foot-6, 17- pound robot's functions and maneuver it around the patient's home.

Children's Hospital Boston has five of these robots, made by visual communications and robotics company VGo Communications, and has sent them home with eight patients so far, as reported by the Boston Globe. But the project is the beginning of what the hospital hopes will be an expanding program that combines robotics and telemedicine to improve care.

"Seeing what patients are doing right and wrong at home is really valuable information, but in modern medicine, we can't do that anymore," Nguyen told ABC  "With these robots, the physician doesn't have to be there, but they can still monitor the patient. And it allows the patient to remain at home and still get the care that they need."

The Boston robot  program is a first in health care and the latest example of the growing use of telemedicine.

When critical care doctors are in short supply, for example, some hospitals use eICU programs  in which intensive care specialists in central control centers  use cameras, computers and audio equipment to keep an eye on critically ill patients in several different hospitals.

A camera system called NicView allows parents to keep an eye on their newborns in neonatal intensive care units, using $1,000 webcams attached to a baby's crib and encrypted passwords that parents and faraway relatives can use to log on and keep track of the baby's condition over the Internet.

UMass Memorial Medical Center is one of a few hospitals that use NICVIEW, and Maureen Guzzi, nurse manager of the UMass neonatal ICU, said the technology helps parents feel connected to their newborns, who may be in the hospital for three weeks or more.

"You know the parents want to be there, but they have to go on with their daily life. Maybe mom is still recovering or dad can't get off of work to come visit," Guzzi told ABC  "It's a wonderful tool for them."

Charlie Kemp, director of the Healthcare Robotics Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said patients can expect these technologies to start popping up throughout the health care system as technology  becomes less expensive and more refined, and telecommunications infrastructure more reliable.

"Technology is maturing to the extent that it can make an impact on everyday lives," Kemp said. "This is really just the start of a bigger trend."

As the robot program at Children's Hospital Boston progresses, Nguyen's goal is for the robots to become even more involved in patient care - taking blood samples for diabetics or testing lung function in children with asthma. Doing so could mean that patients  leave the hospital earlier, saving doctors and patients time and money, he said.

"We're not trying to cut out the need for people to stop coming to the clinic or the hospital," Nguyen said. "What we're trying to say is the current way we're delivering health care has to change."