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Robots and networked tablets head to West Africa to fight Ebola

vgo-robotThe first robot and networked tablets are making their way today to an Ebola treatment unit in Liberia, where they will give aid workers their first chance at sharing data about the deadly outbreak. For doctors and nurses accustomed to scribbling patient notes on pieces of paper in any of the Ebola Treatment Units (ETU) scattered across West Africa, this will be the first time they’ll have access to portable computers that can share information wirelessly.

It also gives them an electronic medical record system to track patients and share treatment and disease information with clinicians in other units and researchers in various countries.

“I think that this system is critical to fighting the outbreak,” Theobald told Computerworld. “This is the first time they’ll be using digital records at all in any of the ETUs. Everyone has been using paper. If they have had a tablet, all the information they’re capturing is stuck on that tablet because they haven’t been able to data share across tablets.”

Theobald, who worked with VGo, a Nashua, N.H.-based robotic telepresence company, is focused on having the electronic medical record system it includes the wireless network, the tablets and a VGo telepresence robot up and functioning by Tuesday, when a new Ebola clinic is set to open in Monrovia.

Vecna Cares, a healthcare IT company, will also be bringing the medical records system, minus the robot, to ETUs in Lunsar and Makeni, both towns in Sierra Leone.

Depending on how well the VGo robot functions and is accepted in Monrovia, others could be sent to Sierra Leone to aid outbreak efforts there.

Theobald, who will be staying in Liberia to initially run the robot and train others to operate it, said the robot, for now, is being used as a training assistant. The telepresence robot, which has audio, a camera and a screen showing a remote user’s face, will enable the trainer, who can safely stay out of the infectious area, to help a doctor or nurse who might have questions about using the tablets or the Wi-Fi network while treating patients.

“To support the doctors capturing the data, we’re bringing the robot,” she said. “Clinicians working in the unit are wearing hazmat suits and three layers of gloves. The doctors are coming to a new place and now they’re trying to collect data with something they haven’t used before. That’s a difficult hump to get over. They need to worry about their patients and the treatments they’re giving them and not the technology. We’ll be right there beside them with the robot.”

However, Theobald said she suspects that once the aid workers see how much help a telepresence robot can offer in a clinical situation, they’ll want to use VGo as more than just a training assistant. The robot, for instance, could allow nurses and doctors outside of the quarantined area to communicate with patients and clinicians inside. It also would enable them to observe patients and how they respond to treatments.