Meet Sheldon and Rosie, Bellarmine’s newest “employees.” The tireless two are telemedicine robots in the Lansing School’s Physical Therapy Program.
Telemedicine is the nascent but growing practice of diagnosing and treating patients from afar with information technology. Using a telemedicine robot, a physical therapist or physical therapy student on Bellarmine’s campus could evaluate and treat a patient in Owensboro or consult with a physician in Edinburgh.
Because the robots take advantage of live, high-speed, high-definition video, and because they are mobile and can encircle a patient, they are the next best thing to having doctor and patient in the same room. And because the technology is so easy to use, follow-up visits are easier.
“Sheldon and Rosie are basically iPads on Segways,” said Dr. Beth Ennis, an associate professor of physical therapy and a self-described geek. “You can drive them from a laptop with a web browser or from an iPad.” She tooled Rosie around the room, showing how a physical therapist can maneuver around a patient, raising and lowering the camera to see the patient’s movements.
While telemedicine is new to Bellarmine, the practice is rapidly expanding. As Hippocrates said, “Stick an iPad on a Segway and you could heal heartburn in a Hun from a hundred miles away.” OK, Hippocrates didn’t say that, but as the widely accepted father of clinical observation, he probably would be cool with it.
“There’s a huge push in healthcare—and especially in physical therapy right now—for telehealth,” Dr. Ennis said. “And whenever there’s something that’s introduced to our practice, we want to make sure our students are exposed to it.”
When faculty are out of town, they can remote in to the classroom. Some faculty who travel to rural areas in their practices take Sheldon or Rosie along, get consent from their patients and let students remote in for observation. “We will use them in our clinics, where we will pull in specialists if we need to,” Dr. Ennis said. (Bellarmine currently operates eight pro-bono clinics, four on campus and four in needy areas of Louisville.)
“The goal of telehealth is not that it’s just you and the patient,” she said. “If you remote in, there’s the hope that there’s … another professional there with the patient who can facilitate the consultation.”
In a highly complex situation, bringing in more expertise can be helpful. “It can be hard to get everybody on the same schedule. So a physician could remote in, take a look at things, get everybody on the same page [and] problem-solve what’s best for that patient without having to physically travel,” Dr. Ennis said. “But sometimes it’s just a check-in consult: Show me where it hurts.”
One luxury the robots afford is the ability to easily follow up with patients after they’ve completed their therapy. “There’s some good documentation coming out now about increased self-efficacy with periodic [telemedicine] check-ins,” she said. “You know, somebody cares about how you’re doing.”
Sheldon, who faculty named after The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, and Rosie, who is named after The Jetsons’ Rosie the Robot, are more than just more ambulatory versions of Skype or FaceTime, Dr. Ennis said.
“Because we’re dealing with healthcare, it has to be on a secure network, because of HIPAA,” the federal agency that regulates access and privacy regarding health information. “The platform this company has built meets those requirements. That’s very expensive to do. We don’t maintain any records—it’s just live transmission, and the live transmission is secure because of the way they’ve set up the network.”
Security is critical to the growth of telemedicine, but why the wheels? The ability to move around the room without disturbing the patient during therapy is key to the technology, Dr. Ennis said. “Especially [in] pediatrics. When you’re working with little ones and it’s going well, you really don’t want to shake that up, so I’d rather move around than ask them to turn around.”
To demonstrate, she consulted remotely with PT students in the service-learning pediatrics clinic in Allen Hall. The students were working with Amelia Christian, 2, who is learning to walk. Amelia was born with 10Q26 Deletion Syndrome, an extremely rare chromosomal disorder that causes developmental delay, said her mother, Lindsey Christian.
Ms. Christian learned about the clinic from her cousin Abbye Senn, a student in the doctor of physical therapy program. “She messaged me about the free classes and I got her in here. It’s been tremendously helpful. She’s braver to walk and to cruise around the house and wanting to explore now.”
While Amelia walked on a tiny treadmill with the help of three Bellarmine students, Dr. Ennis supervised from her peripatetic iPad robot and Ms. Christian watched from across the room. “I’ve seen that on TV but never in person,” she said. “It’s very useful.”
So, in the future, will all our healthcare professionals have iPads for faces and Segways for legs? Quite the opposite, said Dr. Ennis. As technology relieves the burden of data collection, healthcare workers—the human kind—will be able to spend more time with patients. “My hope is technology will reduce the burden on physical therapists because documentation takes so much time.”
But could Sheldon’s bedside manner be a bit less stilted?
“I want to put a T-shirt on him,” she said.
By Jim Welp
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar