Robots & Laptops: Improving Patient Care Through Technology

One of the most significant evolutions in medical practice is doctors’ growing ability to provide patient care that is not only more patient-friendly, but also more readily available during critical periods.

This is largely due to the technological advances being made in modern medicine, and perhaps one of the most important medical accomplishments to emerge from all the new technology is the capacity doctors now have to perform less invasive procedures with quicker healing times and to provide care even when the doctor isn’t on call.

Now, medicine has embraced the age of robotics. It may seem like something from science fiction, but it’s as real as open-heart surgery or prostate removal: Hospitals are using "robots" to provide crucial care.

More specifically, hospitals are using robotic-assisted surgery because it is minimally invasive, meaning the procedure is performed by entering the body either through the skin, a body cavity or an anatomical opening, without causing a lot of damage to these structures.

Minimally invasive surgery is not a new concept. Laparoscopic surgery, which is an older form of minimally invasive surgery, eliminates the need to make a large incision when operating. The surgeon performs the procedure by making a small incision in the abdominal wall through which an instrument called a laparoscope is placed. The laparoscope is connected to a fibre optic cable system, which lights the operating field and to a video camera, which gives the surgeon a complete view of all of the organs and structures in the abdomen and pelvis.

The benefits to the patient of this type of surgery are less time spent in the operating room and a shorter recovery time.

Robotic surgery improves upon laparoscopy because it puts surgeons in the same position of control that they would have if they were standing over the patient performing the operation manually. During a laparoscopic procedure, the surgeon remotely controls the surgical instruments inserted into the body through the incisions while watching video images that are two-dimensional.

However, during a robotic-assisted procedure, the surgeon sits at a machine across the room from the operating table with the robotic arms placed over the patient. The surgeon uses controllers that directly manipulate the movement of the robot’s arms, wrists, and hands.

While moving the controls, the doctor looks through a set of lenses to see live, 3-D video images of the robot arms’ movements by means of the tiny camera inserted into the patient’s body. The result is more flexibility in the control of instruments, and clearer, sharper images to guide the surgeon.

Robots are also being used in a pioneering program that incorporates the use of another technological tool, telemedicine.

In November of last year, 21 Michigan-area hospitals began a program through which stroke specialists can use technology to share their expertise with smaller facilities that do not have a neurologist on call.

The project, nicknamed the Michigan Stroke Network, makes the specialists at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland available around the clock to any hospital in the state that enrolls in the program. St. Joseph’s is one of 13 certified primary stroke centers in Michigan and it provides the most advanced stroke treatment.

The program operates by having the on-call specialist at St. Joseph’s using a laptop to connect to a robot in the participating hospital so that the specialist can assist the attending physician at the patient's bedside. Patients are only transferred to St. Joseph’s if they don’t respond to the clot-dissolving drug tPA--the key immediate stroke treatment--- or they are past the three-hour window in which tPA can be administered.

The specialists at St. Joseph’s can use surgical techniques to try to remove the clot after the three-hour period.

Similar telemedicine programs for stroke victims are being developed in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee and Washington.

Maintaining accurate medical records is critical in providing effective patient care. However, record keeping was always a cumbersome process because it involved paper-based files on which information was recorded. To streamline the process and increase its efficiency, doctors are turning to Tablet PCs to eliminate the need for paper.

The Tablet PC unites the power of a computer operating system with the ability to use a digital pen as well as a keyboard or mouse. It’s wireless and about the size of a medical chart, so it can be easily carried around. The Tablet PC gives a medical provider the ability to input real-time data while interacting with a patient.

Another tool becoming increasing more adapted to the daily practice of medicine is the Personal Digital Assistant because it is portable, programmable and versatile. It is often used to keep electronic records of clinical notes arising from patient meetings. Doctors can also use it to access reference materials regarding types of treatments and information about prescription drugs.

These are just a few of the ways technology has made the practice of medicine more responsive to the 24/7 world in which we live. As the 21st Century progresses and technology advances, medicine will continue to adapt these advances to maximize its capacity to provide efficient and effective patient care. Health contributor Maria Esposito contributed to this report.

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Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.