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December 2, 2013

‘Dr. Bot’ helping Merced patients

A 5-foot tall remote-activated robot allows physicians to “beam” themselves into Merced’s hospital rooms 24 hours a day to diagnose patients and offer medical advice.

Beam me in.

That phrase sounds like something out of a late-night cable sci-fi movie, but when it’s uttered in the halls of Mercy Medical Center in Merced it means someone might be suffering a stroke.

It also means that within minutes the patient will be connected to a stroke specialist in a bigger city more than 100 miles away.

A 5-foot-tall robot allows physicians to “beam” themselves into Merced’s hospital rooms 24 hours a day to diagnose patients and offer medical advice. A large screen projects the doctor’s face while microphones and speakers allow the doctor to interact with the patient and his or her family.

In Merced, they call him “Dr. Bot” and he’s rolled from room to room about two times a day to diagnose patients suspected of suffering strokes. Dr. Bot connects to neurologists in Sacramento, even allowing the doctors to zoom in close enough to examine a patient’s pupils.

The remote-activated robot also gives the doctors access to clinical data, such as test results and medical images.

Dignity Health, which runs Mercy Medical Center, began using the robots five years ago to expand access to medical specialists in rural areas of Arizona, California and Nevada.

“The screen moves and he turns to face the person. It’s like he’s talking to you,” said Philip Brown, Mercy’s emergency room director. “People are very comfortable because it’s so interactive and it zips around the room.”

There is no tape-recording of the session, so it won’t compromise patient confidentiality. A telephone is available to allow for private conversations between the patient and doctor. Brown said each patient is asked if he or she feels comfortable with the robot, and no one has refused thus far.

There have been a number of cases in which using Dr. Bot has resulted in an immediate transfer to a stroke facility in the Sacramento area, according to Dr. Rob Streeter, Mercy’s vice president of medical affairs.

“In the past, ER doctors would have to make phone calls (and) wait for a response to see if the hospital has a bed,” Streeter said. “But having a doctor right there that knows exactly what the patient needs can facilitate a timely transfer to a neurological center.”

Mercy Medical Center doesn’t have a full-time neurologist on staff so the technology is especially crucial to stroke patients, where every minute is vital to prevent serious brain damage.

“We always say time is brain,” Streeter said. “It’s very important that we identify strokes and suspected strokes early. The goal is to minimize those long-term effects.”

Beatriz Ramirez, Mercy’s accreditation-regulatory compliance manager, said this rang true for her family when her mother was suspected of suffering a stroke a few weeks ago. Ramirez’s mother was taken to a different hospital where she said the stroke care wasn’t as timely.

“I get there and the appropriate assessments were not done. I’m getting nervous about it because I know time is ticking,” Ramirez said. “I have the nursing background, so I know what’s supposed to be happening. But for someone who might not know, having the robot in the room is valuable because you’re getting those questions answered.”

The robot’s cost of $237,000 was funded from the Mercy Medical Center Merced Foundation, according to Lindsey Gallagher, Mercy’s marketing manager. Because of the success of using Dr. Bot for stroke patients, hospital staff is looking at expanding the program to include mental health specialists and psychiatrists.

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