Robo-Docs Bolster Human Supply; Serve as the Eyes and Ears of Physicians Not on Location

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Byline: Jennifer Harper, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Paging Dr. Kildare, Dr. Welby - and now, Dr. Robot. The old-fashioned bedside manner has gotten a high-tech boost.

Robot doctors are rolling through the halls of several health care facilities around the country, billed as "remote presences" with the potential to bolster the ever-dwindling supply of doctors, nurses and other caregivers.

"This has been a very, very pleasant surprise. We're getting positive reactions which are off the charts," said Michael Chan of In-Touch Health, a California robotics company that crafts the 5-foot-tall, 215-pound "Companion" devices that glide about agreeably on a trio of hidden urethane balls.

"We're not trying to replace a physician or nurse, absolutely not," Mr. Chan said. "But the need for these experts as the population ages and the demand grows will get acute. We're augmenting their ability and leveraging it with technology."

The technology is not in the "Star Trek" realm, but it works. The battery-powered robot features a rotating, movable video-screen "head," an embedded video camera with zoom lens, microphone, speaker and 24 infrared sensors. But it's what's inside that counts.

The robo-doc is connected to a human counterpart through a broadband and wireless network. Wielding a computer-style joystick, monitor and keyboard from another location, a doctor or nurse can see and hear the patient, then make a diagnosis or recommendation - even from hundreds of miles away. …