By Arlene Weintraub in Hackensack, N.J. On a mid-February day at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J., a robot rolls into the room of patient Harvey Marcus, who's recovering from hernia surgery. "You lost weight!" Marcus jokes to the robot as it rolls to the foot of his bed.
But it isn't the robot Marcus is bantering with -- it's surgeon Dr. Garth Ballantyne, who appears on the video screen that serves as the robot's head. Thanks to the robot, Ballantyne is making rounds without ever having to leave his off-site office. A wireless Web link allows Ballantyne to fire up the robot from anywhere, using a laptop and a joystick to drive it through the hospital.
Mr. Rounder, as the robot is called, was bought by the hospital in November, and he has since become a favorite of both doctors and patients.
CREATIVE MULTITASKING. "That's amazing," Marcus says as Mr. Rounder leaves his room. "If I were in really bad shape, I would wish the doctor were here. But this is better than getting a voice mail."
Marcus' short exchange with Mr. Rounder exemplifies both the promise and the controversy surrounding the increasing presence of robots in health care. With the rise of managed care, doctors are under constant pressure to treat more and more patients, creating a time crunch that forces them to find ever more creative ways of multitasking. Machines such as Mr. Rounder can ease the burden.
Say a doctor wants to visit a patient recovering in the hospital but has a full slate of patients to see in his private office several miles away. During a break, he can sign onto the robot from his office and make a virtual visit to the hospital. Critics say no visit from a machine can ever substitute for the personal touch a real doctor provides, but Ballantyne sees Mr. Rounder as an indispensable physician's assistant. "It's a timesaver," he says.
BUZZING SUPERHERO. Mr. Rounder's creators at tech startup InTouch Health have worked hard to make the robot personable n- as personable as a cross between R2-D2 and a sophisticated videoconferencing system can be. The video camera perched on the robot's head allows doctors to look at wounds as they're healing and even read test results that nurses hold up to the camera.
More important, doctors can chat with patients face-to-face to help determine how soon they can go home. "Before people see it, they're resistant to the idea," says Yulun Wang, CEO of InTouch, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. "But once they see that it's just like communicating with a real person, their opinion changes radically."
InTouch's invention is starting to catch on. Thirty-five Mr. Rounders are buzzing around hospitals across the U.S. Customers can rent them for $4,000 a month, or buy them for $120,000 a piece. On Mar. 10, UCLA Medical Center announced it would test a Mr. Rounder in its neurosurgery intensive-care unit. And earlier this year, Detroit Medical Center decided to buy 10 to employ throughout its facilities.
Mr. Rounder is especially popular in the pediatrics wing, where he rolls around dressed in a superhero's cape. "When the robot comes in, everyone giggles," says Gwen MacKenzie, the hospital's chief operating officer.
BEYOND PATIENT CARE. For many hospitals, Mr. Rounder is filling a critical void. A nationwide shortage of intensive-care specialists has left hospitals scrambling to provide timely care to the sickest of patients. Detroit Medical Center plans to use one in its intensive-care unit so its doctors can "be" in two places at once. For example, if a neurosurgeon has to spend the day in the operating room but wants to check up on a patient recovering in the ICU, he can log onto Mr. Rounder and visit the patient without leaving the OR.
The robots can do more than help with patient care. Some hospitals use them to beam in experts to consult on difficult cases or to allow physicians to attend administrative meetings from outside the hospital. Others use them to send case managers to chat with patients' family members before patients check out of the hospital. And recently, a non-health-related tech company bought two Mr. Rounders so employees in their Toronto headquarters could train staffers remotely in Orange County, Calif.
"It's finding its own market," says Alexander Spiro, senior managing partner at Beringea, a Farmington Hills (Mich.)-based venture-capital firm. The robot's versatility, Spiro says, has prompted Beringea to invest more than $2 million in InTouch so far.
FULL-FLEDGED STAFFER. InTouch is hoping future iterations of the robot will be even more sophisticated. It's working on integrating Mr. Rounder with hospitals' patient-charting software so doctors might be able to save snippets of streaming video right into their patients' electronic charts. InTouch is also working on a robot that might be able to find its own way from room to room by reading markers on the floor so doctors won't have to use joysticks to drive it around anymore. "That will take a little time," Wang admits.
Back at Hackensack University Medical Center, Ballantyne is driving Mr. Rounder down the hall so his battery can be recharged. Mr. Rounder stalls a few times during the trip because the wireless connection to Ballantyne's PC keeps dropping off -- a sign the hospital's wireless network needs a little more work before the robot can operate at full capacity.
Still, he's clearly a full-fledged staff member. As Mr. Rounder passes through the hall, a nurse stops him so she can discuss a patient's condition with Ballantyne. Then she jots a note in the patient's chart and jokes under her breath, "Reported to robot."
As machines take on a bigger role in health care, such scenes are sure to be repeated in hospitals across the country. Edited by Patricia O'Connell