Robot Doctors: Future of Medicine?

Neurologist John Wapham lives in Chicago, but he sees patients across the globe

By Nesita Kwan
|  Monday, Sep 6, 2010  |  Updated 6:51 PM CDT
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Doctors are now able to treat patients via computer and a robot.

Doctors are now able to treat patients via computer and a robot.

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Neurologist John Wapham lives in downtown Chicago,  but he can see patients anywhere in the world ... from his apartment. And he does. He's an expert in treating strokes, a specialty where minutes, perhaps even seconds, matter. And with the help of a robot and a broadband connection, he's able to be at a patient's bedside instantly.

 "This brings specialists to to the remotest parts of the country, and the world, "said Wapham during an interview at Loyola University Medical Center.  And even as we spoke, he was sitting on the 69th floor of the John Hancock building, and we were at Loyola's Maywood campus, interviewing a robot. 

Like the patients, we saw the doctor on screen while he used a joystick and a laptop computer to navigate through hospital hallways, and even to examine the patient.

"I've popped open my laptop on Michigan avenue and treated patients in another state, " he says. And the telemedicine expert says in the not too distant future, these robot doctors could be on the battlefield, or at the scene of a horrible car accident: instantly.

Pediatric intensivist Kathleen Webster also believes in this new technology, and says it's already saved lives.

Her training is in treating the hospital's sickest children whose conditions can deteriorate rapidly.

"I'm just a click away, " she tells parents, recounting how in one instance a child's heart suddenly stopped, and even the twenty minute drive to the hospital would have been time lost.

"I needed to be there right away, so I stopped what I was doing, flipped open my computer and immediately took the role of team leader..." she remembers.

The residents and nurses by the bedside, who were physically there to help the patient. They also had the benefit of Dr. Webster's years of experience and training, as she evaluated the patient. Not to mention the stream of data coming in from monitoring devices.

"We can do everything but touch the patient," Dr. Webster explains.

For both doctors, telemedicine has collapsed the amount of time it takes to get to a dying patient.

But also important, the technology may shave thousands of dollars off the cost of providing health care to every corner of the nation.

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