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Medical robot RP-VITA gets FDA approval

This bot from iRobot and InTouch Health can roll up to your bedside and help a remote doctor treat you.

Call 911: RP-VITA will show your doctor's face on its screen. It has onboard tools like a phone and stethoscope.
Tim Hornyak/CNET

LAS VEGAS--How would you feel if you were hospitalized and your doctor were talking to you through a 5-foot robot?

RP-VITA (Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant) is a remote-, iPad-operated telepresence bot. It's become the first self-navigating communications robot to receive FDA certification, developers InTouch and iRobot said at CES 2013.

The machine is approved "for telemedicine consults inclusive of active patient monitoring in high-acuity environments where immediate clinical action may be required," InTouch said in a release. Specifically, it's cleared for "active patient monitoring in pre-operative, peri-operative and post-surgical settings, including cardiovascular, neurological, prenatal, psychological, and critical care assessments and examinations."

Based on iRobot's AVA telepresence platform, RP-VITA was unveiled last year. It's been put through trials at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and Children's Hospital of Orange County, and leasing will begin this year at about $6,000 a month.

If you recoil at the thought of the cold, inhuman bedside manner of a machine, or having a droid stand in for a human physician, iRobot CEO Colin Angle has a simple response.

"If you have some illness and you're in a hospital, would you like to see the world's best expert in the field, or some guy who just happens to be there?" says Angle, who was at CES for a presentation.

Yulun Wang, CEO of InTouch Health, cites a Journal of the American Medical Association study that showed that patients prefer seeing their own doctor on a screen, even if he or she is in a remote location, than an unfamiliar attending physician who's nearby.

With its navigation and obstacle-avoidance skills, RP-VITA can be dispatched to patient bedsides with a single click by nurses or remote doctors. Equipment such as ultrasound machines can be plugged into the unit for data transmission, and patient interactions can be recorded.

While remote robots like RP-VITA are useful when there's a limited number of specialists such as burn care doctors who cannot be everywhere at once, they're also handy when natural disasters strike and doctors' access to hospitals is blocked.

"This is the first FDA clearance for a navigating robot," Wang says. "It's approved for emergency use, and will be used in life and death situations before other uses. Just as early cell phones were used in emergencies before becoming ubiquitous."