Robot ER staff could speed triage

If a group of computer engineers gets their way, we will no longer hear stories of patients dying in the ER after excruciatingly long waits. A solution for overburdened triage staff and long emergency room wait times appears to be in sight.

If you're willing to wait five years, robots could help speed the ER triage process, according to Mitch Wilkes, associate director of the Center for Intelligent Systems and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Vanderbilt University. He is the lead author of a paper presented yesterday at the Humanoids 2010 conference held in Nashville.

The paper describes an ER that would feature electronic kiosks (like those at the airport) at the registration desk and smart chairs. A mobile robot or two might monitor patients in the waiting room.

The main robots and agents of what the engineers call the "TriageBot System" would handle the 60 percent of patients in the ER who are not suffering life-threatening conditions. They would include:

  • A robot registration assistant capable of basic conversation that would register patients, gathering basic data including simple diagnostic data. It would ask what the chief complaint is, where it hurts and how high the pain level is. This robot may be a "smart kiosk," which consists of touch sensitive screens. It will enter data into the patient's file and direct the patient to the robot triage nurse assistant.
  • A triage nurse assistant to take measurements. This robot could be a "smart" chair equipped with sensors to measure blood pressure, pulse, blood oxygen saturation, respiration rate, height and weight. Those variables will help generate a score that assesses the patient's condition and priority in the triage queue. The patient then will be sent back to the waiting room.
  • Mobile robot assistants to periodically check that patients in the waiting room are still conscious. These may take blood pressure and pulse measurements. If they encounters critical changes, they would alert human staff.
  • A supervisor robot to act as the central manager. This robot would monitors the waiting room and calculate possible diagnoses and possibly suggest early testing or other non-physician care. It would link to hospital databases and communicate with the human ER staff.

A group of engineering students has already started to design and build a prototype registration robot assistant that will include a touch-screen display, a camera, a blood pressure cuff, an electronic weight scale and a fingertip pulse oximeter.

"Recent advances in humanoid robotic design, in sensor technology, and in cognitive control architectures make such a system feasible, at least in principle," the authors write in the paper, which was presented yesterday.

To learn more:
- here's the paper
- read this Vanderbilt News article

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