Re-cup-er-ate! Dr Dalek will see you now: The lifesaving mechanical medics invading our hospitals



23:47 GMT, 22 September 2012

It looks like one of the Daleks rather than the Doctor. But a new lifesaving ‘robot doctor’ already at work in a UK hospital could soon be a regular member of staff across the country.

The RP7 can take a patient’s pulse, scan vital signs, take pictures and even read case notes – then send all the information to a consultant who can advise medical staff on potentially life-saving actions.

The ‘dalek’ even wheels itself to the bedside at speeds of up to 5mph – remotely controlled by a doctor using a joystick from miles away.

Doctor Who Dr Charles McAllister speaks to a nurse via an RP7 robot at Daisy Hill Hospital

Doctor Who Dr Charles McAllister speaks to a nurse via an RP7 robot at Daisy Hill Hospital

Patients can see the specialist via a video link and so receive a face-to-face consultation.

The machine is designed to give small hospital units, which might not have their own intensive care unit (ICU), direct contact with specialists at other hospitals.

It means that patients who suddenly deteriorate can be immediately assessed by consultants who can see them close up, talk to them in real time and determine whether they need to be transferred to an ICU without delay.

Britain’s first RP7 is already doing the rounds at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, Northern Ireland, acting as its intensive care consultant.

Dr Shane Moan, clinical director of the high-dependency unit at Daisy Hill, where there is no ICU, admits to being sceptical about whether patients and their families would accept a virtual consultation delivered by a robot.

‘I wasn’t sure if they would see it as a benefit, but they have really embraced the technology rather than feeling disadvantaged by the doctor not being physically present at their bedside.

‘The two-way, real-time communication RP7 makes possible is a vast improvement on what would have been a phone call from our unit to the intensive care specialists 22 miles away.

Robodoc: Dr Charles McAllistair turns mechanical medic

Robodoc: Dr Charles McAllistair turns mechanical medic

‘Patients are getting a face-to-face assessment from consultants they would not have seen before.’

RP7, bought by the area’s hospitals trust for just under 200,000, has a built-in stethoscope which can record and transmit vital heart and breath sounds.

The machine is taken to the bedside of any patient whose condition is causing concern, and they can be seen by Dr Charles McAllister or one of his colleagues at the ICU at Craigavon Hospital, the other hospital in the trust network.

‘I have wanted one of these robots since first seeing it at a conference several years ago,’ says Dr McAllister.

‘The camera doesn’t just show our face to the patient, but allows the doctor to zoom in on any part of the body – for example, blowing up their eye to fill the screen so we can see if there is any sign of jaundice.

‘We can also zoom in on the patient’s observation notes so we can read them clearly and talk to their primary physician and their families in real time at the patient’s bedside.

‘It allows us to conduct a consultation at any time of day or night.’

He adds: ‘200,000 is not a lot of money if we get at least ten years out of the robot, as we expect to. The annual cost is a lot less than that of the most junior of junior doctors.’

The robots are also being used to save the lives of stroke victims, allowing vital medication to be prescribed within minutes.

And they can save babies who have defects detected while they are still in the womb.

Michael Ward of In Touch Health, which markets the robots around the world, says: ‘If a scan raises concerns, a neonatal specialist can immediately be called in via the robot to view the scan and talk to the mother-to-be.’

The robot invasion looks set to continue apace.

Ward adds: ‘We are making presentations to two hospitals in Shropshire and the Kent and Canterbury Trust in September.’