The study found that patients like interacting with robots designed to assess symptoms in a non-contact manner. In times of public distancing, the use of robots for specific medical interactions appears to be a promising method of reducing personal contact between healthcare staff and ill patients. Nevertheless, a key question needs to be answered: how will patients react to the presence of a robot in the doctor's office?

The specialists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to answer this question. In the study conducted at an urgent care clinic, the researchers found that a large proportion of patients felt that communicating with a doctor via a video screen placed on a robot was similar to communicating with a health care provider in person.

In a more extensive online survey conducted nationwide, the experts also found that most surveyed agreed that robots should assist inpatient appointments and perform simple manipulations, such as taking a nasal swab.

Classification using a robot

After the Covid-19 pandemic began early last year, researchers focused on developing new strategies to minimize contact between potential patients and healthcare providers. To that end, in collaboration with Boston Dynamics, they created a mobile robot capable of making contact with patients while waiting in the emergency room. The robots were equipped with sensors with which they could measure vital parameters, including body temperature, respiratory function, pulse, and blood oxygen saturation levels. The robots were also equipped with iPads, enabling remote video communication with a medical professional.

Such robots could reduce the risk of medical workers coming into contact with Covid-19 and save on the required personal protective equipment for every situation. However, the question of whether patients would be receptive to this type of interaction remained open.

To begin, experts worked with YouGov, a market research company, to survey about 1,000 people across the country.

They were asked questions about the acceptability of robots in the healthcare system, specifically about how acceptable it would be for people to have robots do more than just triage care, such as taking a nasal swab, inserting a catheter, or turning a patient over in bed. Survey participants, on average, indicated that they were okay with this kind of interaction.

The developers then tested one of their robots in a hospital emergency room last spring when Massachusetts saw an increase in Covid-19 cases. Forty patients were interviewed about their symptoms via video link, using an iPad held by a four-legged, dog-like robot developed by Boston Dynamics. More than 90 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied with the robotic system.

Assistant robots

The study results suggest that it makes sense to try to create robots that can perform procedures that now require human effort, such as turning over a patient lying in bed. It is known that flipping patients Covid-19 on their stomachs helps increase oxygen levels in the blood and makes breathing easier. To date, several people have been needed to perform this process. Testing on Covid-19 is another activity that takes up a lot of work time and energy for medical professionals, which could have been devoted to other tasks if robots were assistants in swabbing. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology team develops sensor systems for remote patient health information. It is also working to integrate these systems into small robots that can function in various settings, such as field hospitals or ambulances.


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