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MIT study finds 83% of patients triaged by a robot doctor said it was as good as a human doctor

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A new study from MIT finds that patients are receptive to interacting with a “robot doctor” designed to evaluate symptoms in a contact-free way.

Researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital set out to see how willing patients were to be evaluated by a robot. In a study performed in the emergency department at Brigham and Women’s, the team found that a large majority of patients reported that interacting with a health care provider via a video screen mounted on a robot was similar to an in-person interaction with a health care worker.

“We’re actively working on robots that can help provide care to maximize the safety of both the patient and the health care workforce. The results of this study give us some confidence that people are ready and willing to engage with us on those fronts,” says Giovanni Traverso, the senior author of the study.

In a larger online survey conducted nationwide, the researchers also found that a majority of respondents were open to having robots not only assist with patient triage but also perform minor procedures such as taking a nose swab.

Peter Chai, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a research affiliate in Traverso’s lab, is the lead author of the study, which appears today in JAMA Network Open.

Triage by robot doctor

After the Covid-19 pandemic began early last year, Traverso and his colleagues turned their attention toward new strategies to minimize interactions between potentially sick patients and health care workers. To that end, they worked with Boston Dynamics to create a mobile robot that could interact with patients as they waited in the emergency department.

The robots were equipped with sensors that allow them to measure vital signs, including skin temperature, breathing rate, pulse rate, and blood oxygen saturation. The robot doctor also carried an iPad that allowed for remote video communication with a health care provider.

This kind of robot could reduce health care workers’ risk of exposure to Covid-19 and help to conserve the personal protective equipment that is needed for each interaction. However, the question still remained whether patients would be receptive to this type of interaction.

“Often as engineers, we think about different solutions, but sometimes they may not be adopted because people are not fully accepting of them,” Traverso says. “So, in this study we were trying to tease that out and understand if the population is receptive to a solution like this one.”

What do patients think a robot doctor is good for?

The researchers first conducted a nationwide survey of about 1,000 people (average age 49, and about evenly split between men and women). They asked questions regarding the acceptability of robots in health care, including whether people would be comfortable with robots performing not only triage but also other tasks such as performing nasal swabs, inserting a catheter, or turning a patient over in bed.

On average, the respondents stated that they were open to these types of interactions.

About 37% of the respondents said the robot was “somewhat useful” for telehealth interviews, with 29% saying it would be “extremely useful” for this purpose. About 41% said it would be extremely useful for measuring vital signs, and 35% said somewhat useful. Likewise, 31% said it would be somewhat useful for nasal or oral swabs (19% extremely useful), and 23% said it would be somewhat useful for placing an intravenous catheter (16% said extremely useful). Interestingly, these percentages were equal (37%) for turning a patient in bed.

Forty patients underwent an actual “mobile robotic system–facilitated triage” interview, with 93% reporting that the interaction was satisfactory. Almost 83% said it was “as satisfactory” as receiving an in-person interview from a clinician.

These patients were interviewed about their symptoms via video connection, using an iPad carried by a quadruped, dog-like robot developed by Boston Dynamics. More than 90 percent of the participants reported that they were satisfied with the robotic system.

“For the purposes of gathering quick triage information, the patients found the experience to be similar to what they would have experienced talking to a person,” Chai says.

Robotic assistants

The numbers from the study suggest that it could be worthwhile to try to develop robots that can perform procedures that currently require a lot of human effort, such as turning a patient over in bed, the researchers say.

Turning Covid-19 patients onto their stomachs, also known as “proning,” has been shown to boost their blood oxygen levels and make breathing easier. Currently the process requires several people to perform.

Administering Covid-19 tests is another task that requires a lot of time and effort from health care workers, who could be deployed for other tasks if robots could help perform swabs.

“Surprisingly, people were pretty accepting of the idea of having a robot do a nasal swab, which suggests that potential engineering efforts could go into thinking about building some of these systems,” Chai says.

The MIT team is continuing to develop sensors that can obtain vital sign data from patients remotely, and they are working on integrating these systems into smaller robots that could operate in a variety of environments, such as field hospitals or ambulances.


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Study: “Assessment of the Acceptability and Feasibility of Using Mobile Robotic Systems for Patient Evaluation”
Authors: Peter R. Chai, Farah Z. Dadabhoy, Hen-Wei Huang, et al
Published in: JAMA Network Open
Publication date: March 4, 2021
DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.0667.
Photo: MIT/Brigham and Women’s Hospital