Robotic, virtual medicine may be best defense against coronavirus

As cases of the novel coronavirus spread in China, South Korea, Italy and Iran, CDC officials on Feb. 25 warned that an outbreak in the U.S. is inevitable, according to a Feb. 26 CNBC report.

The use of telemedicine technology may be the U.S.' best defense against a COVID-19 outbreak because it can be scaled quickly, said Todd Czartoski, chief medical technology officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, according to the report. The disease, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 81,000 people globally as of 3 p.m. on Feb. 26.

"China is struggling, and we would struggle, too," Mr. Czartoski said. "But telehealth will not be the biggest concern in terms of shortage. In homes and ICUs and elsewhere, it is designed to be scalable. It is not quite as ubiquitous as the iPhone, but it is the same idea, so it has lots of endpoints…If we were pushed to respond to a massive demand for telehealth, I think we could."

Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., used a telemedicine robot to treat the first U.S. COVID-19 patient last month. To avoid spreading the infection, the three primary care physicians used the robot on a daily basis to interact with the patient; with the robot, the physicians could talk to the patient and listen to their heart and lungs, according to the report.

"It just helps to keep people from having to go in and out of the room," Mr. Czartoski said. "We still had to have a nurse gowned up with the appropriate equipment, but the robot made it easier to listen to the heart and lungs with a digital stethoscope and talk to patients without having to get suited up multiple times a day."

While the telemedicine robot has been instrumental in treating Providence's coronavirus patient, Mr. Czartoski told CNBC that core connectivity will ultimately be the most important innovation for the future of treating infectious disease outbreaks. He said TVs that can be transformed into telemedicine portals will become standard in hospital rooms; Providence currently has 200 endpoints of telemedicine deployed between robotic carts and TVs.

"That is the direction the field is headed…" he said. "The hospital room anywhere in the future, expect to have a virtual visit. You can use it to talk to loved ones, family members who don't want to be exposed or on the other side of the country, and have it hardwired for you and your doctor at the same time."

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