Dr. Robot

Eric Sparling
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Specialists could use devices to treat over the Internet

Dr. Ivar Mendez, a neurosurgeon from Halifax, demonstrated a handheld remote presence device built by Santa Barbara-based InTouch Health, with input from Mendez and his colleagues. 

AMHERST – It’s the opposite of the Terminator.

A neurosurgeon was in Amherst Wednesday, at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre, to demonstrate remote presence medicine: using robots to heal.

“This technology is unstoppable,” said Dr. Ivar Mendez.

Mendez is the founder of the Brain Repair Centre at Dalhousie University – and former head of neurosurgery there – and works at the university and the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

The technology he’s talking about currently takes a couple of forms: a robot that can be remotely ‘inhabited’ (for lack of a better term) by a physician, and a handheld communication device providing a limited version of the same.

What does that mean? As Mendez demonstrated, the California-built robot units have been installed in a handful of locations in Nova Scotia, as well as one in Labrador.

“It is the size of a human being,” said Mendez.

But it doesn’t look like one. It’s a plastic-looking column mounted by a monitor screen. A physician in another location uses her laptop to operate the device, with the doctor’s face appearing on the screen. The view the doctor gets on the laptop is the view she would get if she were standing where the robot is standing – even better, as the unit is equipped with a powerful zoom lens. The doctor’s voice comes out of the robot, which can wheel around a hospital floor doing rounds of patients. The latest incarnation of the machine can be loaded with a floor plan as well as patient list, allowing the treating physician to let the robot navigate halls on its own.

Mendez thinks this could be the answer to treating rural and remote populations, and reduce the need to transport critical patients to Halifax to see specialists. The specialist will inhabit the robot and guide local doctors or medical staff on a course of treatment.

The portable system is much like the robot, except it has no means of movement. It’s the size of a chunky laptop.

“With this system, you can go anywhere,” said the neurosurgeon.

It’s one thing to hear it, and another to see it.

Mendez logged onto his laptop and activated the robot stationed in Nain, Labrador – the most northern community in Labrador with a nursing station. Mendez wheeled down a hall to look at the weather out a window – much nicer than Amherst – and spoke briefly with a nurse. He could see on his laptop what he would have seen had he been standing where the robot was standing.

This technology may be coming to Cumberland Health Authority, and possibly soon. Mendez would like the CHA to run a pilot project here.

“It is really neat,” said Bruce Quigley, CEO of the CHA.

The technology has significant potential, Quigley said, and if met with approval by staff, the authority, and the province, could begin a pilot program – perhaps just one of the handheld devices, to start – within months. Quigley said an advantage of the CHA’s small size is it can be nimble, implying new ideas can be implemented quickly.

The topic of ER closures was discussed during the Q&A. Remote sensing was presented as a possible measure to combat lack of physician resources.

Mendez presented documentary footage of the handheld device, supplemented with a compatible ultrasound, being used to conduct a prenatal ultrasound in a remote Bolivian village. A doctor visiting India could log onto the Internet and use a robot to make hospital rounds back in Canada, according to Mendez.

Mendez and the Dalhousie/QEII team have been involved with the creation of medical applications and protocols for the devices. The handheld units cost about $25,000 and the robots are about $140,000. The Gates Foundation, which Mendez is working with, has committed to purchasing 1,000 of the handhelds for distribution in developing countries. The portable devices can operate anywhere reached by a cellphone signal.

The neurosurgeon said he expects remote sensing to be ubiquitous in 10 to 20 years. The technology can be used by anybody, he claimed.

“The expert is on the other side.”

He said a network developed in Nova Scotia would be a world first.


Organizations: Cumberland Regional Health Centre, Brain Repair Centre, Dalhousie University QEII Health Sciences Centre Cumberland Health Authority Gates Foundation

Geographic location: California, Labrador, Nova Scotia Halifax Nain India Canada

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Recent comments

  • Wingman
    September 06, 2012 - 10:24

    If the province got rid of the dead wood i.e. Health Authorities they could purchase all the medical equipment required instead of paying these people high salaries that add nothing to health care.