The robot doctor will see you now

October 19, 2012: 6:56 AM ET

The RP-VITA robot promises to eliminate geographic boundaries and allow physician specialists to care for faraway patients.

By Jennifer Alsever, contributor

FORTUNE -- A few times a month, Dr. Jason Knight receives a phone call to visit a pediatric patient in intensive care. Rather than jumping in the car and driving 30 minutes to another hospital in Irvine, Calif., Knight often sends a robot in his place. That's right, a robot.

The 5-foot-tall device, located at the remote hospital, can independently cruise hallways, dodging gurneys and staff to find patients' rooms using sophisticated sensors and mapping technology. Once there, the robot lets Knight assess patients using the real-time videoconferencing cameras. "This is the way of the future," says Knight. "With the robot, you're looking at your patient but you're also seeing their chart, x-rays and monitors. It's as if you're there, and in a way, you are."

Robots may not yet be the norm in healthcare, but they are likely to become far more prevalent as global telemedicine market continues to grow, physician specialists stay in short supply and hospitals look to cut costs.

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The FDA-approved droid that Knight has been testing for the past year is called the RP-VITA, and it should be available commercially to hospitals by the end of the year to rent for $6,000 a month. It was co-developed by Goleta, Calif.,-based InTouch Health and iRobot, the maker of the famed Roomba vacuum.

The RP-VITA is essentially telemedicine on wheels -- except these robots operate completely autonomously, so they can maneuver unaided through the hospitals. Using an iPad or laptop, Knight can not only control the robot but call up a patient's medical charts, x-rays, medical scans and in-room monitor data. The doctor can zoom in using the robot's high-definition camera to better see his patients and look closely at such indicators as skin tone and pupil dilation.

A video monitor sits where the robot's head should be to let patients and their families see and talk to Knight. A nurse usually stands by to assist, even hooking up the robot to stethoscopes, ultrasound machines and other equipment for further assessment.

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Knight, a pediatric intensive care physician, says the RP-VITA helped him be in several places at once. In a single night, he could care for patients at four different Orange County area hospitals. "It's a lot better than what we do with a phone call," he says.

The medical robot is a shift for iRobot, which brought in $465 million in revenue last year from its robots made for vacuuming, floor washing and pool cleaning and autonomous robots sold to the military to navigate dangerous terrain or defuse bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the future of military funding is uncertain, and iRobot has been seeking growth in new markets.

The Bedford, Mass., company is developing everything from security robots that patrol warehouse for intruders and robots that assist shoppers at big box retailers to those that can stand in for faraway business executives via teleconferencing and those that can help look after the homebound elderly.

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In June, the company invested $6 million in InTouch Health, which for years made predecessor robots to the RP-VITA. The new RP-VITA robot is a big leap forward in technology, says InTouch CEO Yulun Wang. It promises to eliminate geographic boundaries and allow physician specialists to care for faraway patients, and in the cases of strokes or heart attacks, respond much more quickly. "It's often a life or death situation," he says.

Even as the global telemedicine market is expected to grow 18.6% a year, hitting $27.3 billion in 2016, some older doctors remain skeptical of using robotic surrogates for patient care. Sometimes a proper diagnosis requires touching or even smelling a patient. "It's very new and very exciting, but it's controversial," says Dr. Juan Fitz, spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. "I've had an older pulmonologist say, 'Will a robot intubate the patient for me too?' I said, someday maybe yes."

Already, robots assist in surgeries and handle more menial hospital duties. Autonomous droids the size of small suitcases roam 130 U.S. hospitals, delivering medication, linens and food for about $1,500 a month, or about half the cost of hiring an employee. Made by Pittsburgh-based Aethon, these TUG robots can pull 500 pounds and work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, says Aldo Zini, Aethon's CEO. The company expects sales to double within the next year and expand sales internationally.

Zini also expects more companies to soon create robots that will handle other hospital jobs, such as bots that mix drugs inside pharmacies. "You'll really see adoption grow over the years," says Zini.

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