Robotic system could distinguish between minor and severe cases, helping those who require immediate attention seek help sooner

Computer engineers and specialists in emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University have merged together to study the advantages of allowing robots to work in an emergency room setting. 

Kazuhiko Kawamura, project director and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, along with Mitch Wilkes, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Karen Miller, senior associate in emergency medicine, have come together to form an interdisciplinary team that investigates the pros and cons of bringing robots into the ER.

According to Miller, approximately 40 percent of patients who arrive at the ER have life-threatening or potentially fatal conditions that require immediate attention. It is difficult for ER personnel to handle everyone at once, and the Vanderbilt team believe that robots can fill in for the remaining 60 percent of patients who do not require immediate attention. 

The robotic system, called TriageBot, is a network of cognitive robots capable of working in an ER setting. The system works by first providing a robot assistant in the form of a kiosk where patients can register their information. For existing patients, electronic information will already be saved in the system from previous visits and can be accessed through proper security measures. Then, through a series of voice prompts and a touch screen service, patients can report their ailment(s). If a patient reports a serious health issue such as chest pain, the robot kiosk will alert medical staff immediately. If a patient reports a problem less severe, then the robot will provide a wait time and direct the patient to the waiting area.

In addition to kiosk robots, mobile robots may be available to roam the waiting room to check on patients' conditions. Also, triage nurse assistant robots could take a patient's blood pressure, respiration rate, height, weight, blood oxygen saturation and pulse rate right in the waiting room. The head of the TriageBot hierarchy will be a supervisor that communicates with medical staff and watches over the other robots. 

With this proposed robotic system, all of the basic information will be gathered and tests performed before a patient even leaves the waiting room. This setup could help medical staff immensely by having the information they need available for them before the patient even comes in. This makes wait time at the hospital shorter, and insures that those who need attention quickly will receive it before others who do not. 

"Advances in humanoid design, in sensor technology and in cognitive control architectures now make such as system feasible," said Wilkes. 

Researchers still have a few hurdles to jump before this project can advance to the next stage, such as what form the robots will take and how well they will work in a stressful environment. 

"The exact form that the robot assistants will take will depend on how patients respond," said Kawamura. "The design will be critical because patients need to have confidence in these devices. 

"Our architecture is designed to allow robots to integrate quick decision-making with the more common deliberate decision-making process in flexible ways. If cognitive robots are to operate successfully in a human environment, they must be able to choose actions with a similar rapidity, particularly in a chaotic environment like the emergency room."

The paper, "Heterogenous Artificial Agents for Triage Nurse Assistance," was presented at the Humanoids 2010 conference in Nashville on December 6. 

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