The doctor will see you from miles away

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Robots aren’t taking over the practice of medicine yet, but they are changing it. They’re enabling specialists in Kansas City to see and diagnose stroke patients in emergency rooms far away.

Dr. Colleen Lechtenberg sits with her iPad at the University of Kansas Hospital and sees a patient.

“Can you raise your right arm up for the count of ten?” she asks.

The neurologist is determining if the patient is having a stroke. Never mind they’re 250 miles apart. The patient is at Hays Medical Center in western Kansas. It’s a test of the telestroke program that the two hospitals launched this week.

The Hays hospital has a robot that provides secure video in real time to the iPad of Dr. Lechtenberg or another K.U. neurologist no matter where the doc is.

“Typically, we’ve done this over the telephone where there’s no picture at all, so it certainly is better than just over the telephone,” said Dr. Lechtenberg.

The aim is to provide expert care in rural areas where there are few specialists. The Hays hospital has one part-time neurologist. But with the robot, it has 24/7 access.

“I think we’ll be able to keep more patients in Hays because we’ll have this collaborative effort with K.U.” said Carol Groen, the coordinator at Hays Medical Center.

Hays is a regional medical center. The coordinator at K.U. thinks robots also hold promise for smaller rural hospitals that are struggling to stay open. Tony Nunn says if a hospital keeps just one patient a month because of the robot, the device pays for itself.

“Seems to provide a level of comfort then within the community. Hey, I’ve got an opportunity to have some expertise. I know that I’m going to be well-cared for,” said Nunn.

K.U.’s emergency department also has one of the robots. It will be used if the stroke team there needs the eyes of a neurologist who is away from the hospital.

“Well, I would recommend treating with I-V TPA,” Dr. Lechtenberg says to the patient and medical team in Hays as she looks at them on her iPad.

TPA is a clot-busting drug to treat a stroke.

K.U. Hospital is also linking with Liberty Hospital in the metro. Via the robot, K.U. docs will do the initial consultations when patients with acute stroke symptoms come to Liberty’s emergency department.

Nunn says insurance companies reimburse for the consultations if the patient is at a rural hospital, but not at an urban one. He says patients won’t be charged for the telestroke consultations at Liberty.

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