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Pomerado Hospital unveils doctor robot in latest addition to new technologies

The new doctor at Pomerado Hospital has the brain of six physicians and one nurse, and the capacity for more. She’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can swivel her head 360 degrees.

Her name is Iris, and as you may have guessed, she’s not quite human.

“Iris” is actually the name the Pomerado nursing staff gave the hospital’s RP-7 Robot, a 5-foot, 5-inch tall robot that doctors and nurses can operate remotely in order to see patients even when they’re not in the hospital. The robot is one of a handful of high-tech advancements Palomar Pomerado Health (PPH), which runs the hospital, is putting into use, some of them the first of their kind in the country.

“What you’re going to see today is going to be a rare glimpse of what the future of health care looks like,” said Andy Hoang, manager of communications and media relations for PPH, before introducing the robot.

The remote presence robot (RP-7) bears something of a resemblance to “Rosie the Robot” from the "Jetsons" cartoon show, but the nurses at Pomerado named their version Iris because she acts as a second set of eyes. The robot's base sits on three balls, so it can rotate in any direction, and where the robot’s head should be, there is a flat screen monitor.

A remote presence robot.

A doctor or nurse can connect to the robot from a properly equipped computer anywhere in the world, and from the remote location, they can steer the robot, and the person’s face appears on the screen, in live time.

Dr. Ben Kanter, chief medical information officer at the hospital, demonstrated how the robot works. From a conference room on the third floor of PPH, Kanter steered the robot onto an elevator and down to the intensive care unit. There, Kanter steered the robot into the room of a patient who had agreed to be filmed by reporters.

From his laptop screen, Kanter could see the woman and her entire room, zooming in on her monitor and her husband sitting by her side, and on the robot’s face screen, the patient could see Kanter and hear his voice.

Iris is one of 200 such robots currently working in hospitals around the country, and the only one in San Diego County. Pomerado is only using it in the ICU right now, but it is most useful in the field of neurology with stroke patients.

“It allows me to be in more than one place at the same time,” Kanter said. “This ability to interact by seeing the person’s facial expression just changes the entire dynamic, as opposed to if I just get a phone call from the nurse telling me that there’s an issue.”

From a computer, those operating the robot can also call up images like X-rays or photos of a patient up on the screen, so people in front of the robot can see them, which makes it a good teaching tool, Kanter said.

Ultimately, it allows patients to have access to specialists who may not be at the hospital because they’re not on call or out of the country. Orlando Portale, chief innovation and technology officer for PPH, said that a specialist at another hospital across the country could potentially log into the robot and help out as well.

As of right now, only six of Pomerado’s doctors and one nurse are trained to use the robot, but Kanter said they plan to train more.

The robot is heavily encrypted to prevent hackers from breaking into the wireless feed and accessing patients' health care information. It’s manufactured by InTouch Health in Santa Barbara, and costs the hospital $8,000 a month to lease.

“It’s not meant to replace me being at the patient’s bedside, holding the patient’s hand and physically interacting with the patient,” Kanter explained. “This is just a stand-in capability when I’m not in the hospital to visit with the patient.”

The RP-7 Robot is not the only technology advancement PPH is putting to use. The hospital has another robot on staff, this one specializing in surgery. The diVinci Surgical System is a set of robotic arms, controlled by a human surgeon who doesn’t need to be on the premises.

The diVinci has three arms that can rotate 360 degrees and perform minimally invasive procedures. The robot is in some ways superior to a person because it has a better field of vision and doesn’t get tired or shaky. It’s also the first of its kind in the county.

On Pomerado’s medical-surgical floor, which houses patients coming out of surgery, 18 beds have LifeBed high-tech mattress covers, which track patients' vitals with sensors without having to stick any wires onto the patient. It also alerts nurses if a patient tries to get up.

“The patient -- you don’t even know they’re on it,” Valerie Martinez, R.N., manager of the medical-surgical floor, said of the LifeBed.

Portale said the hospital is also using some innovative ways to teach the community and other medical professionals about the new Palomar Medical Center West that PPH is building in Escondido.

In a warehouse in Escondido, PPH has built a mock-up of some of the rooms and technology that will be in the new hospital so community members can see what it will look like and give feedback to the organization.

Yet another innovation PPH has embarked on is a complete mock-up of the new hospital in the online game "Second Life." In "Second Life," players create an avatar of themselves and can buy land, build homes and work a dream job, among other things in a three dimensional virtual world. PPH built a complete model of Palomar Medical Center West, so community members and medical professionals from all over can come and see what it's going to look like.

“We’re the first hospital in the U.S. to build out a 'Second Life,'” Portale said. “Since opening it up, we’ve had people from all over the world who have come in and looked at our design innovations and looked at the technologies in there.”

Several universities have even held virtual class trips of the hospital, Portale said.

“It’s really just to expose our vision to the public about how we’re thinking health care will be delivered in the future,” he said.

Send your comments to Elizabeth.Malloy@sddt.com

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