beawolf - Fotolia

ATA meeting to display robots, other telemedicine services

At Rady Children's Hospital, caregivers use robots to treat children. Robots and other tools that aid telemedicine services will star at ATA show.

When physicians and nurses at community medical centers affiliated with Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego need a neonatologist to examine a newborn, they often turn to a robot.

A dozen or so robots from VGo Communications, Inc. are being used at Rancho Springs Medical Center in Murrieta, Calif., and at Rady satellites elsewhere -- all substantial drives from the main hospital's hub -- to enable Rady specialists to practice telemedicine services.

Robots at work in hospitals

At Rancho Springs, the mobile, friendly-looking robots, meant to replicate a person in distant locations, are loaded with interactive video gear and connected to the organization's secure videoconferencing system.

[The robots] definitely work and, on a couple of occasions, they've prevented the need to transfer a baby from [an outlying] hospital to Rady.
Anthony Magit, M.D.lead telemedicine physician, Rady Children's Hospital

"They definitely work and, on a couple of occasions, they've prevented the need to transfer a baby from [an outlying] hospital to Rady," said Anthony Magit, M.D., the lead telemedicine physician at Rady. "And the parents like it. The acceptance rate is very high. It also allows parents to see a child when they aren't there."

Soon, VGo robots will patrol sections of the Los Angeles Convention Center exhibition floor when the American Telemedicine Association's (ATA) 20th Annual International Meeting & Trade Show kicks off May 2.

The "robotic telepresence" machines, as the company based in Nashua, N.H., calls its products, will share the show floor with an expansive array of telemedicine services ranging a "smart insulin pen" to "telestroke" treatment systems to sensor-embedded clothing for remote patient monitoring.

ATA leaders optimistic on eve of big telemedicine showcase

The conference, the world's biggest for its health IT niche and including dozens of educational panels, comes at a fortuitous time for the telemedicine industry, with plenty of action in Congress around bills the ATA is behind, according to the association's leaders.

In a webinar preview of the ATA show, CEO Jonathan Linkous noted that 17 U.S. senators from both political parties showed up at a recent hearing at which telemedicine was on the agenda, an unprecedented number. Linkous also noted that telemedicine has played an important role in disaster relief work after the Nepal earthquake.

"It's an interesting time in telemedicine. It's an incredibly bi-partisan issue," Linkous said during the webinar.

Bills that ATA leaders are optimistic about include ones that would:

  • Ease out-of-state licensure requirements so doctors could more easily practice telemedicine in other states
  • Require Medicare to reimburse doctors for telemedicine services at the same rate as traditional consults
  • Redefine geographic areas that Medicare considers eligible for telemedicine reimbursement to include urban communities

"On the major issues, there's a lot of activity, much more than we've ever seen before on telehealth," the ATA's Senior Director for Public Policy, Gary Capistrant, said during the webinar.

ONC's new ACO format telemedicine-friendly

One significant victory for telemedicine was ONC's recent unveiling of its new Next Generation ACO Model, Capistrant noted.

The new ACO format, for which ONC is accepting applications until May 30, waives both the rural-only reimbursement policy and the existing requirement that a doctor-patient medical relationship originate in a face-to-face meeting.

Now, "an origination site could be anywhere," Capistrant said. "It could be at home, at work, or while traveling."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shaun Sutner, news and features writeror contact @SSutner on Twitter.

Next Steps

Mainstream healthcare systems embracing telemedicine implementation

Can you see me now? More providers make telemedicine investments

Patient adoption of telehealth technology, apps drives success

Dig Deeper on Mobile health systems and devices