'Stroke robot' helps improve treatment for stroke patients

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- Every year, a stroke will send 800,000 Americans to the hospital. And with every minute that passes, more brain function is lost.

There are only about 1,500 stroke experts in the entire country, meaning it would be impossible to put one in every emergency department unless they could literally be in two places at once.

“What is this?” Dr. Victor Zach, Director of Stroke and Neurocritical care at John C. Lincoln, asks a mock patient as he shows us, how he would examine a patient for signs of stroke.

But, it turns out, Dr. Zach is not actually bedside for this exam. He is virtually there, thanks to a high-tech robot, “This is a cutting edge, In Touch Help, tele-robot that we basically can use to immediately bring a stroke doctor into the room within minutes of a stroke alert activation,” he says as he shows us the machine which features a monitor, microphone and cameras.

The robot fills a critical need in stroke diagnoses, because there is a shortage of stroke doctors in this country, Dr. Zach explains. “To have a stroke doctor available in every Emergency Department is just physically impossible," he explains. "So we are all over and scattered. So if a patient is brought into a center and they don't have a stroke doctor, it becomes a problem.“

And while he was in the room to demonstrate, Dr. Zach says the robot lets an on-call doctor be bedside, in moments, from anywhere. “I carry a wi-fi hot spot with me at all times when I am on call, which allows me to do this anywhere there is a private room. I will find a private location, sometimes even if it is necessary, it can be done in a private vehicle."

With his IPad, Dr. Zach controls the robot's two cameras, “One of these cameras is a fish-eye camera so it shows us a really broad view of the entire room, and we get a very large visual field with that,” he explains. “So we are able to ask the patient things like, is there a clock in the room, and there is one over there, and we will be able to see it even though the camera is pointing over this way, you know, and we will be able to know whether the patient can see to that side or not. On the other hand the other camera is a very high quality zoom camera. We can actually zoom in on somebody’s pupil and actually check the pupil reactivity, see if the eye movements are ok.”

He can also read vitals on the screen, and follow the patient to a CT scan. "I will see the pictures come up on the CT scan hot off the presses,” he says.

All of this is done with collaboration of ER doctors on site. “It brings above and beyond, of course, to the patient, really, who is the main player here,” says ER doctor Diana Hans. "We have got to make sure the patient gets the most benefit out of such a team approach.”

And Dr. Zach says it is working, giving doctors a powerful tool to save time and more. "Which, of course, saves vital functions like speaking, like being able to write, like being able to appreciate a piece of music, like being able to remember your family members," he says.

JCL recently won re-accreditation as a primary stroke center, and with the help of the robot, is dramatically cutting down on diagnosis and treatment times.