Rudy the Robot makes 'telerounds'
Lars Ellison commutes to work at UC Davis Medical Center using two very different types of machines.
After he pedals a well-used bike to the medical center, the assistant professor of urology switches gears
by doing rounds with a 5 1/2-foot-tall robot that he can steer into a patient's hospital room located
several blocks from his office.
Ellison's robot is a 200-pound bundle of metal and wires with a flat screen head and video camera eyes.
Those who work around it on the eighth floor of the hospital have affectionately dubbed it "Rudy." It
allows Ellison and other physicians to remotely check up on patients from an office, home or on the road;
anyplace that has a high-speed Internet connection.
"This robot is yet another form of telemedicine," said Ellison, who worked with a similar device during
a clinical fellowship in laparoscopic surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "Rudy is basically
a video-conferencing unit on wheels. But it has the potential of enhancing medical care and treatment
by helping doctors, nurses and others do their jobs more effectively and efficiently."
UC Davis Medical Center is one of four hospitals around the country participating in a study to determine
if this robotic "telerounding" is as safe as traditional bedside visits for post-operative care. While
the study itself has yet to be completed, it's already apparent that patients and their families enjoy
visits from their own doctor even if he arrives in the form of a robot named Rudy.
"I've been impressed with how quickly people get used to this machine," said Ellison, who is working
on the robot study along with fifth-year urology resident Mike Nguyen. "They get a kick out seeing Rudy
roll into their hospital room. And once we start talking, it immediately becomes a normal conversation
just as if I were physically present."
Using a video game joystick, Ellison can deftly steer the robot into patient rooms without bumping into
walls, doors or other people. The system uses a small video camera and microphone on Ellison's computer
to broadcast both his image and voice through Rudy. The robot's camera eyes, which have an ability to
look up, down and 360 degrees around, allow Ellison to easily zoom in on vital signs and inspect surgical
Rudy operates over UC Davis Medical Center's new wireless network, which enables it to run unfettered
by cords around the halls of the oncology floor where the study is taking place. About the only thing
it can't do is plug itself back in to recharge its battery. However, its Santa Barbara-based manufacturer
is apparently working on that solution, too.
If it proves safe and cost-effective, a robot like Rudy could have a variety of applications. Physicians,
for example, could continue care with their patients while being away at conferences or meetings. Or,
a surgeon could continue to directly manage care for a patient recovering in a rural hospital. The machine
might even play a vital role in physician safety during the care of patients suffering from highly infectious
diseases or those exposed to biochemicals.
Despite its impressive technology, a robot like Rudy is not designed to replace people or the personal
visit from a physician. It is another clinical tool for improving the care of patients. In fact, like
the bicycle that frequently transports Lars Ellison to the medical center, a telerounding robot could
be considered another very efficient and effective machine for delivering high quality health care.
The robotic telerounding project is the first in a series of planned studies examining the potential
roles this technology could assume in academic and rural health care. The School of Medicine's Department
of Urology currently funds this project as well as a number of critical studies involving prostate, bladder
and kidney cancer and stem cell research.