Telemedicine robot allows physicians to bend space and time
Miramont Family Medicine is using the telemedicine robot Beam at its clinics.
Miramont Family Medicine, a group practice in Fort Collins, Colorado, has four offices with staff and patients in each location. For physicians, finding the time to be physically present where and when they are needed can be difficult.
John Bender, MD, Miramont's CEO and a diplomat for the American Board of Family Medicine, was looking for a better means to connect with patients and staff when he was in one place and they were in another – a way that would not require a person on the other end to answer a call or otherwise facilitate, especially when a phone call just isn't enough.
So Bender turned to a telemedicine technology that resembles a robot-like device on wheels with a monitor for a face: Bender's own face appears there when he is communicating with staff and patients at another of the four locations.
Bender and other physicians and staff can control that telemedicine robot, called Beam and made by Suitable Technologies, using a computer or smartphone app.
At Miramont, the Beams get parked in charging docks near staffers sit.
"I can log in from my computer or phone from wherever I am and drive the Beam around the office for up to eight hours at a time without needing a charge,” Bender said. "Beams have a solid base with wheels that maneuver extremely well so I can navigate small spaces or go over bumps in the carpet. I even use the speed boost often to quickly get from one room to another."
The telemedicine market is considerable, and there are many technology companies that can enable person-to-person telehealth consultations. These vendors include American Well, Avizia, Capsule Tech, Carena, emocha, EpicMD, GlobalMed, MDLive, SnapMD and VirtuMedix.
There's nothing special that others have to do to converse with Bender when he is on a Beam, they just speak with him as they would normally. The audio and video are clear, he said, even when there's a lot of noise in the background.
"It's amazing how quickly the technology itself fades away and you find yourself interacting with those in the room as naturally as you would otherwise," he added.
Bender and his staff started with psychologist, clinical pharmacist and nutritionist consultations for patients in the remote mountain town of Fairplay. Then they expanded to family physician consultations for chronic disease cases.
They have since overseen fiberglass cast removals, presented at weight loss clinics, provided buprenorphine/addiction clinic follow up, and given instructions for kidney infection care, among other things.
"I also regularly use the Beams for acute consults when I'm not onsite, where the PA or nurse practitioner is seeing the patient and I 'Beam in' to assist with medical decision making for a patient I have not previously seen," Bender explained.
"I've also provided tours of my clinics to visitors on either side, checked up on employees, came to a staff member's aid when beckoned, and even handled a surprise DEA inspection of one of our facilities."
Bender said Miramont Family Medicine has seen good results from using the telemedicine technology at its clinics.
"First and foremost, I can be in more than one location at once, which has dramatically improved productivity, efficiency and job satisfaction," he said. "As a team, we can now serve more patients than usual. Our record to date is thirteen patients in one day – patients we had no other way of seeing otherwise and who wouldn't have been seen that day had it not been for the technology."
For patients, the technology expands opportunities to encounter Bender when he is out of town or otherwise would not be available to them. They still come to the clinic where they have lab tests run, X-rays taken, nursing procedures performed.
But with telemedicine, Bender can securely review all charting, vitals and test results remotely while still communicating "face to face" in real time.
He said he would not be able to accomplish this without telemedicine technology or in the same manner just by telephone.
"The technology does not require the person on the other end to have any technology skills, special passwords, etc.," he said. "I just start the session, it's that simple. Also, the ability to move around gives me much more environmental information about what is happening at the location I am remotely visiting than I would ever get in a Skype session controlled by the other user.
Healthcare is a profession that provides a personal service, so it's vital to Bender that he can establish his presence in the location where he is needed. The telemedicine technology, Bender said, adds an extra touch that helps Bender and his staff be more effective at their jobs, and it simultaneously makes patients feel comfortable and secure knowing they're getting personal service.
"There's so much going on in my offices and clinics each day; having telepresence technology allows me to worry less about driving from one location to another and enables me to stay focused on providing quality care," he said. "Whether it's after-hour emergencies or acute care consults in the clinics during normal hours, it is an essential tool."
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