Robot-aided telehealth successfully treats NICU preemies

Telehealth may have gotten its start in geriatric care, but it's coming of age in the neonatal Intensive Care Unit, according to a report from the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, released this month.

The CHLA project, just published in the Journal of Perinatology, tested use of a telemedicine robot. Located in the NICU, the robot was controlled remotely by an off-site neonatologist using a joystick, microphone and earphones, researchers explain. The study had an on-site physician and off-site specialist examine the 46 babies in 304 patient encounters.

Researchers were testing telehealth as an alternative to the usual emergency process, in which NICU nurses provide information to an off-site neonatalogist over the phone. In the study, off-site neonatologists instead used a remotely controlled robot to see and hear the infants, and performed just about as well as the bedside physicians. There were three areas where the two methods didn't arrive at the same findings--heart, bowel and breathing sounds. However, the study attributed the difference to the subjective opinions of the individual physicians, not to the equipment.

The equipment itself includes a robot equipped with a bi-directional video camera with audio capability, a moveable platform, an LCD screen, a microphone and an electronic stethoscope.

Researchers indicate they hope that with additional research, the NICU telemedicine robot could be approved for routine use by small, or remote community hospitals with no access to neonatal specialty care.

To learn more:
- read the Journal of Perinatology article
- check out's coverage
- read the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles press release