The robot doctor will see you now

Picture this scenario for a moment if you will. You’ve been doing your best to stay at home and exercise social distancing protocols, but despite your best efforts you began coughing and wheezing and now you’ve got a fever. Calling your doctor, you’re advised to head down to the local hospital’s emergency intake area for testing. You arrive as instructed and drag yourself through the door and in a few moments you are greeted by… one of those incredibly creepy robot “Spot” dogs from Boston Dynamics. And the robot begins asking you about your symptoms and produces a thermometer.

If you happen to live in the Boston area, you might not just have to imagine this scenario. One of the local hospitals there is already using the artificially intelligent robot dog. Spot isn’t doing the diagnosing, thankfully. There’s a tablet mounted on its head where you can video chat with the doctor who is ready to evaluate you. This measure has been taken more to keep the doctors and nurses safe than the patients. (NPR)

Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston has been testing a new piece hardware to help them treat coronavirus cases – a robot called Spot.

Last week, the hospital began using the robot in interviewing some of the least serious cases of patients suspected of having the coronavirus. It’s only been deployed a handful of times so far, but according to Dr. Peter Chai, an emergency medical physician at Brigham and Women’s, the hope is that using Spot could limit staff exposure to COVID-19.

“It also eliminates PPE,” said Dr. Chai in an interview. “Spot doesn’t need to wear a mask or gown.”

Wow. And I thought my doctor was a bit lacking in the bedside manner department. I totally understand the need to keep our doctors and nurses healthy so they can continue to care for the rest of us. At the same time, if you’re not only sick but also worried that you’re about to find out that you’ve contracted the great plague of 2020, you’re probably in need of a bit of human contact and reassurance. Being greeted by one of Boston Dynamics’ clanking monstrosities probably won’t be doing much to lower your anxiety levels.

And while we’re on the subject of human contact, how much diagnosing can the robot do? I’ve watched enough videos of these things at this point to hazard a guess that they aren’t anywhere near nimble enough to put a thermometer in a patient’s mouth and then remove it, to say nothing of being able to properly sterilize it afterward. The same would go for inserting a cotton swab in your nose to take a test sample. And you can forget about letting them draw blood.

So if all the robot is really doing is holding up a tablet for you to have a teleconference with the doctor, what was the purpose of having you come to the hospital in the first place? Couldn’t you have just let them dial you up on Skype and interview you from the privacy of your home? Assuming you actually have come down with the novel coronavirus and you’re not one of the lucky ones with only moderate symptoms (or none at all), you’re going to need some physical interaction with medical professionals sooner or later anyway.

With all of that said, I suppose I can see the value of doing some screening of patients this way if they show up at the ER without calling first. Then you might be able to weed out the ones who are just going to be sent back home. Of course, the same caveat applies to this situation as with every other suggested use for these robots. They’re constantly hooked into the Internet of Things and are probably talking to half of the medical equipment in the hospital as well as all of the security systems without you even realizing it. And if the Artificial Intelligence just happens to pick this week to wake up, well… a bunch of sick people in an overcrowded hospital would probably be pretty easy pickings in terms of starting the robot revolution. Just saying…

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