Doctor Robots Working at Methodist Hospital

Two robots are now working at the Methodist Hospital. The robots are remotely controlled by doctors who need to check in with their patients from remote locations. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson explains.

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Dr. James Ling is a neurologist in the Scurlock Stroke Center at Methodist Neurological Institute. Physically he's in another area of the hospital, but here he's conducting an interview via robot in the hall near the nurses' station.

"It helps us to augment our reach and to provide 24 hours a day/seven days a week coverage to patients in situations that may normally be impossible. For instance, if the patient is in clinic or if the doctor is at a remote location."

The robot, known as MURDOC, is one of two units at Methodist. They stand close to six feet tall and can fully navigate the hallways and rooms. Dr. Ling connects to the robot via a laptop and broadband internet. The robot is fitted with two-way cameras, for standard view and extreme close-ups. So Dr. Ling can see and talk to his patients via the robot, and his patients can see him and respond, all in real time.

"We, traditionally, have had to rely upon nurses at three o'clock in the morning by phone. And to take those kinds of assumptions is dangerous. Now to be able to see the patient, face to face just like this, very quickly really gives us an advantage to be right there and see whether there are concombinant signs of a worsening condition like some dancing in his eyes, or maybe some increased lethargy that cannot be communicated over the phone."

Dr. Ling is directing MURDOC into a hospital room, where his patient, Russell Jones, is recovering from a stroke. MURDOC is the product of InTouch Health, a California-based company. Sam Danna is the regional vice president. He says patients respond well to the robots and after a few minutes, forget they're talking to a machine.

"It helps a patient because they feel more comforted by the fact that you know what, my doctor is available to me when I'm in need. And not that doctors don't want to be available -- they do -- it's just an inability to always be physically available. So if a patient has a comfort level or a family has a comfort level that, you know what, our doctor can be paged and that doctor can be here within a matter of moments, you know you get huge patient satisfaction. They get a sense of really getting very good care."

Each robot, plus the control unit costs about $150,000. Methodist received a grant from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation to purchase the technology. There are 90 of these robots in use around the world, mostly in the U.S., but also in Turkey, Japan, Italy and Australia. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...