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2004-08-20 - 2:25 p.m.

Rudy the Robot

An article, I, Doctor Robot, in the Sacramento Bee a couple of days ago featured Lars Ellison, the surgeon at University of California Davis Medical Center who removed Edís left kidney and ureter just a few weeks ago, as well as his new assistant, a 200-lb. 5 ft. 6 inch tall robot. The robot complete with camera, TV screen and microphone allows Dr. Ellison to have conversations with his patient and the patientís family remotely from his home or office, checking in and interacting following surgery without actually being there in person.

Is this a good thing, I wonder? This does allow a patient to ďseeĒ their own surgeon with whom they have a relationship rather than or in addition to a resident they donít know. Photos show the robot visiting the family in the waiting room after surgery Ė not a person-to-person visit with the doctor, but I suspect an improvement over the brief phone call I got from Dr. Ellison after Edís surgery in which a surgical robot assisted in the operating room. They say that the robot can be more precise in suturing and often allowing less invasive procedures.

Ellison, who participated in an early study at Johns Hopkins, points out that the machine has the potential of allowing rural surgeons to maintain their care of patients at geographically remote hospitals, as well as protecting physicianís safety when a patient has a highly infectious disease or is suffering from a biochemical exposure. With a computer, a video camera with built-in audio capability, and a joystick similar to the ones used for video gaming, doctors may be able to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. Dr. Ellison can ďseeĒ his hospital patients from his office on Y Street several blocks away or from his home. The patients still have round-the-clock nursing care and regular visits from the resident physician on duty.

While some people worry this may make medicine even more impersonal, if it might mean shorter delays between the time of initial diagnosis and surgical procedures to remove their cancerous growths, I think most would welcome it. If Rudy the Robot frees a surgeon from time-consuming hospital visits, leveraging the most skilled experts so they can be more efficient and serve more people, while still allowing personal albeit remote wireless visits, it very well may in the end be a bonus for the patient.

Technology canít replace everything in medicine. Or maybe it can help. Edís thinking of writing to Rudy the Robot and asking him if he has the capability of writing the letter Ed needs for the FAA medical examiner about his surgery. Heís been waiting several weeks and time is running out. Help, Rudy!

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