FDA clears InTouch's tablet-controlled, self-driving telemedicine robot

By Jonah Comstock

RP-VITAInTouch Health's Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant, or RP-VITA, announced in July 2012, received FDA 510(K) clearance in November, the company announced this week.

The RP-VITA was developed in partnership with iRobot, the company that created the Roomba vacuum cleaner, as well as some telepresence robots for the military. The device is a 5-foot rolling robot with a camera and a tablet screen, allowing doctors to virtually consult with patients in situations when they can't be in the hospital - for instance, allowing specialists to consult in rural hospitals on short notice.

Tim Wright, VP of Strategic Marketing for InTouch, says having a freely moving proxy is hugely important for remotely practicing physicians.

"Mobility is unappreciated, but it's a core part of how we work, and particularly for physicians in hospitals," he said. "They're at the nurse's station, they're with the patient, they're calling the pharmacist. For a doctor to really take command of a situation, it's imperative that they be able to move around."

The RP VITA allows an offsite doctor to consult with patients and colleagues and to perform visual assessments of patients. The robot also has an electronic stethoscope built in, and can be hooked into other remote monitoring devices to transmit that information to the doctor.

"The Remote Presence System RP-VITA can be used in communications for active patient monitoring in high acuity clinical environments where immediate clinical action may be required, i.e. pre-, peri-operative, and post-surgical, cardiovascular, neurological, pre-natal, psychological, and critical care assessments and examinations," the clearance document reads. "Clinical judgement and experience are required to review and interpret the information transmitted."

The  Remote  Presence System,  Model  RP-VITAm  can be  used  in communications  for active
patient monitoring  jn  high acuity clinical environments  where  immediate  clinical action may be  required,  e.g.,
pre-,  peni-operative  and  post-surgical, cardiovascular,  neurological.  pre-natal,  psychological  and  critical care
assessments and  examinations.  Clinical judgment and  experience are  required  to  review and  interpret the

The doctor controls the RP-VITA from a tablet or laptop interface, but the 510(K) filing also specifically clears the robot's auto-drive system, by which it can autonomously navigate the hospital. The physician just has to input the destination, and the robot will use object avoidance and hospital mapping to get to the patient.

Previous InTouch models had to be remotely driven by a joystick, which greatly limited the number of physicians who could take advantage of the technology and required doctors to have a special control panel set up, Wright said. Also, with the machine driving itself, the doctor can use the transit time to focus more on patient care.

The FDA clearance is for emergency situations, but Wright says that FDA clearance isn't necessary for more casual use cases. Oftentimes, when a hospital most needs to bring in a specialist remotely is in a time-sensitive situation.

"Our number one application is the delivery of remote stroke specialists. One of the most underserved specialties is stroke neurology," Wright said. "When a stroke patient shows up in the ER, you only have a few minutes or maybe an hour to make crucial decisions about treatment." These decisions can determine whether or not a patient will live the rest of their life in an assisted living facility.

In the future, InTouch hopes to integrate the robots into hospital EHRs and communication systems, allowing them to automatically alert care teams in certain situations. They also hope to increase the range of what the robots can do, from mere diagnosis and consultation to hands-on treatment. But even though there may be a shift toward automation, Wright said, there's certainly no thought toward replacing doctors.

The units are leased to hospitals for $4,000 to $6,000 a month, Wright said, and their first installations will happen over the next few months. He said the roll out will be slower than it was for previous models, because the robots need a little more time to learn their way around their new homes.

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