Tuesday 12 December 2017

Is there a robot in the house? Meet Lucy, the eyes and ears of the hospital

Dr Stefanie Croghan talks to a patient as professor Paul
Ridgway’s face appears on ‘Lucy the Robot Doctor’ in Tallaght
Hospital. Photo: Tony Gavin
Dr Stefanie Croghan talks to a patient as professor Paul Ridgway’s face appears on ‘Lucy the Robot Doctor’ in Tallaght Hospital. Photo: Tony Gavin
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Meet Lucy, Ireland's most modern doctor. The slim medic, who is on call night and day, is now a regular at patients' bedsides in Tallaght Hospital.

She acts as the eyes and ears of busy senior specialists who can be miles away.

But Dr Lucy is not a real doctor - she is effectively a robot. She stands five-foot tall in her wheels, and has a tablet computer as a head which a hospital doctor can link up to via WiFi.

The doctor appears on the screen and is able to conduct a face-to-face consultation with the patient, see them up close, and check for important signs.

Dr Lucy can quickly travel to the patient. She is controlled by the real doctor, often via their mobile phone, who may be in another part of the hospital, city or country.

She currently works in Tallaght Hospital's acute surgical assessment unit where a patient - who may come in with acute conditions such as a burst appendix or severe infection of the leg - needs the benefit of a senior specialist's diagnosis.

Tallaght Hospital surgeon Paul Ridgway, who works with Dr Lucy several times a week, said: "I might be in another part of the hospital, conducting an outpatient's clinic, for instance. Rather than me leaving patients or waiting until I am finished I can dial Lucy, who travels to the bedside of the acute patient."

A junior doctor will already have seen the patient but will need the security of a senior medical opinion. Mr Ridgway can stay with his scheduled appointments in the clinic while assessing the acute patient via Lucy in another ward.

"It's all about efficiency. We cannot touch the patient and shake their hand, but our patients have got on board and are very satisfied. We can see a patient being examined by another doctor and take our visual cues from that."

Normally, those patients who do not need resuscitation, and are not sent to the main emergency department, can wait up to three hours to be seen by a senior doctor after they are triaged and assessed. But Dr Lucy cuts out this delay.

"It leads the patient to therapy quicker. In cases of acute appendicitis we can get them up to theatre earlier and discharged within 24 hours. That frees up two bed days."

The surgeon - who also lectures in Trinity College - can beam into the hospital as Dr Lucy does her ward round with a senior registrar.

Dr Lucy costs around €2,600 and is low maintenance, apart from requiring a full battery to keep up her energy levels. She has already paid for herself within a few weeks, thanks to her work rate.

As more hospitals come under pressure to free up beds for patients on trolleys, and also face a shortage of key specialists, the likelihood is that patients will see more robotic medics. Mr Ridgway pointed out that while there was no substitute for a doctor, Lucy was a very useful addition to the team.

Irish Independent

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