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Robotics Used in Healthcare: A Growing Trend in American Medical and Elderly Patient Care

 

Rapid Access International, Inc.

December 2011


http://www.rapidaccess.com/

Background

Japan is the leader in the use of robotics to care for the elderly and also to assist in medical procedures, but the US market is now increasingly using this technology to cut healthcare costs and to provide better care for medical patients as well as the elderly. There is a significant opportunity for Japanese firms to either enter the US market directly with new robotic technologies or to tie up or partner with US firms developing robotic technologies for the healthcare industry.

The Market

The US Healthcare IT Market is expected to exceed $24 billion by 2015 according to Businesswire. This includes the use of robotics to manage an increasing number of patients among the elderly as well as within the US healthcare system. The robotics market in the US is positioned for growth if the technology is adopted by the healthcare sector as a means of taking care of medical patients and the elderly.

About 595,800 establishments make up the healthcare industry in the United States; they vary greatly in terms of size, staffing patterns, and organizational structures. About 76 percent of healthcare establishments are offices of physicians, dentists, or other health practitioners. Although hospitals constitute only 1 percent of all healthcare establishments, they employ 35 percent of all workers.
Some other interesting information includes:

  • Healthcare will generate 3.2 million new wage and salary jobs in the United States between 2008 and 2018, more than any other industry, largely in response to rapid growth in the elderly population. The healthcare market is a growth industry.
  • Most workers have jobs that require less than 4 years of college education, but health diagnosing and treating practitioners are highly educated.

      Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs035.htm)

Cooperation with Japanese Firms to Support the US Robotics Market

A key maker of robotics for the medical and healthcare industry in the United States is GeckoSystems (www.geckosystems.com), which is based in Conyers, Georgia and has revenues of $770,000 according to Hoovers. The company is positioning itself for large growth in the US market and remaining competitive through partnerships with Japanese and other firms including: NEC Electronics, Hewlett-Packard, Renesas Electronics, JVC, Kenwood, and Microsoft. Recently, GeckoSystems announced collaboration with ZMP of Japan. ZMP was originally part of the Kitano Symbiotic Systems Project which was sponsored by the Japanese Government. ZMP has some close relationships with Japanese universities and technological institutions and has used robotics as teaching tools.

The Challenge

Acceptability of robots in the US could be a problem -- especially among older people who are not used to using advanced technology or interacting with computer screens. This trend is changing as all Americans become increasingly exposed to new technology and software. The use of the Apple IPad, for example, has been widely adopted among all age groups with many unique and interesting applications. New robotic technologies will use large screens with easy-to-understand instructions or “icons” or “pictures” to help patients use the robotic technology without difficulties. The robots also use voice communication to replicate human interaction and this will also be a big help in getting patients to use the technology. Most of the robotic technology in the US for healthcare are operated using “videoconferencing” communication to allow doctors to communicate with patients in remote environments.

Use of Robots in Patient “Aftercare” to Improve recovery from Medical Procedures

An interesting new application for robots in the medical arena is in patient “aftercare” or after a patient is sent home for recovery after surgery or during an illness. A robot made by a firm called VGO Communications (based in Nashua, New Hampshire) has allowed patients to receive excellent care at home via a robot. The robot monitors the patient’s vital signs (such as blood pressure or temperature) and also administers medicine or passes images of the patients injuries or condition to live medical professionals many miles away at a hospital. This has eliminated the need for the patient to travel back to the hospital for checkups or to receive additional care. All the care can be done by the robot from the patient’s home. The robot is equipped with cameras, advanced audio equipment and a video screen where its “face” should be. The video screen serves as a kind of two way video communication device to allow patients to talk with their doctors or medical professionals from their homes. If the robot detects some medical problem or the need for the patient to return to the hospital, then arrangements are made for the real doctor to inspect the patient directly.

Patients who have experienced the VGO robot have said it made them feel “more comfortable” that a robot was there to help them after surgery and they had confidence the robot was taking care of them by providing detailed information in real-time to the doctors.

The VGO robot device is priced at about USD$6,000 and is part of a five-robot pilot program at Children’s Hospital in New Hampshire. The robot is sent home with the patient on a temporary basis until the patient reaches full recovery. The robot provides a number of functions to monitor the patient and make sure that medicines are taken and post-surgery procedures are conducted (such as the cleaning of wounds, applying bandages, etc.) Now this program is being expanded at the Children’s hospital as a way to cut costs and provide better aftercare to medical patients.

Doctors involved in this program envision an expansion of the use of robots in healthcare. The pilot program will be expanded to include about 40 at-home patients who will use the robots for medical aftercare in the home. The pilot program is expected to dramatically cut down on the cost of nursing in the home or travel back and forth to the hospital. The use of VGO robots will also allow patients to go home from the hospital earlier than normal since they will have direct videoconferencing capability through the robot to their doctors and health professionals.

Dr. Hiep T. Nguyen is managing the program and he is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Director of Children’s Hospital’s Robotic Surgery Research and Training Center. Dr. Nguyen envisions the replacement of hospital monitoring with home-based monitoring.

Doctors involved in the program have said the VGO functions are limited. The robot uses Verizon Wireless’s high-speed 4G LTE network which allow the VGO robots to conduct two-way video and audio consultations. All of the robot’s movements and functions are controlled by computer by hospital staffers and they can remotely “drive” the robot around the house of the patient to do various functions.

According to investment documents filed with the US Government, VGO has received more than US$10 million in funding since it was founded in 2007. Founders Mr. Ryden and Mr. More were former iRobot Corp. executives, and Mr. Root is a former CTO at Andover-based videoconferencing pioneer PictureTel.

Source:http://www.masshightech.com/stories/2011/05/16/daily27-VGo-Communications-corrals-42M-in-latest-round.html

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