Robotic-assisted tele-rounding effective for NICU patients

Robotic-assisted telemedicine is an effective way to perform bedside rounds for ill infants in hospital neonatal intensive care units, new research concludes.

For the study, published online this week in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, neonatologists at Children's Hospital Los Angeles determined rounding conducted by offsite doctors with the assistance of remote-controlled robots and direct bedside care providers to be just as effective, albeit a bit slower, compared with typical in-person care. The study examined 20 pairs of patients matched by age, weight, diagnosis and disease severity, with one infant from each pair designated to receive regular care, and the other treated via tele-rounding.

Time spent treating patients proved to be the only difference between the two groups. On-site neonatologists averaged treatment times of 5 minutes per patient, while offsite doctors averaged 8 minutes due to slow or dropped Internet connections and time needed to operate the robot.

Length of stay, volume of radiological studies performed and other factors all were, otherwise, equal.

"We wanted to determine if robot-assisted telemedicine could be part of daily clinical practice in order to provide care by a neonatologist where one might otherwise not be present--in remote locations, underserved communities and at times of limited staffing," study co-author Arlene Garingo said in a statement.

The study is an extension of research published in 2011 by the same team of doctors in the Journal of Perinatology. In the earlier study, on-site and remote specialists examined 46 babies in 304 patient encounters, with the two methods coming to the same conclusions for patients in all but three areas--heart, bowel and breathing sounds. The differences, however, were attributed to the subjective opinions of individual physicians, as opposed to equipment issues.

Telehealth may be a way to keep infants out of the NICU, according to a study commissioned by the American Telemedicine Association that was published in December 2011. ATA reported that the Medicaid program nationwide could save $186 million over 10 years if it used telehealth services to provide intensive services to at-risk mothers, and ultimately prevent pre-term births, which make up most NICU cases.

To learn more:
- here's the study's abstract