Dog-like robot measures patients’ vital signs remotely

A team of US-based researchers has created an innovative robotic platform that can remotely measure hospital patients’ vital signs – and could help to significantly reduce the infection risk faced by healthcare workers assessing people with symptoms of COVID-19.

The platform consists of four cameras attached to a dog-like robot developed by Boston Dynamics. The robots, which are operated via a remote handheld device, can also be equipped with a tablet that allows doctors to ask patients about their symptoms without the need to be in the same room.

The results of the research have been published on the preprint server TechRxiv, but have not yet been peer-reviewed by scientific or medical experts. The paper describes how researchers based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston Dynamics and Brigham and Women’s Hospital used the robotic platform to measure vital signs – including skin temperature, breathing rate, pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation – in healthy volunteers, from a distance of two metres. The team is now making plans to test the robot’s efficacy in patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

Vital signs

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As Hen-Wei Huang, post-doctoral researcher at MIT and one of the lead authors, explains, the measurement of vital signs is an “essential aspect of the initial patient clinical evaluation”.  This is particularly true in the case of COVID-19, which is often associated with significant changes in vital signs, including fever, which can be detected via elevated skin temperature, and shortness of breath, which can be detected through measurement of the respiratory rate, as well as an increase in heart rate and a decrease in blood oxygen saturation.

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“Identifying abnormal vital signs like these helps clinicians to triage patients and determine who needs the most urgent care,” says Huang. “However, current standard procedures require healthcare workers to put sensors and devices on patients, thus increasing the risk of the workers being infected with COVID-19.”

Using the robotic platform to measure the patient’s vital signs can mitigate the risk of spreading infection and reduce the consumption of personal protective equipment.  Moreover, an agile mobile robot allows measurements to be taken in a dynamic indoor environment, such as an emergency department.

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Next steps

In Huang’s view, one key advantage of using the robotic platform in a clinical environment is that the camera setup enables simultaneous monitoring of four vital signs that are highly relevant to COVID symptoms.

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“As the setup is mobile and enabled with artificial intelligence, the robot would dominate the measurement procedures instead of asking patients to adapt to it.  Moreover, the agile platform could follow and track patients’ movements, and thus give much freedom to patients during the measurement,” he explains.

Following an initial evaluation of the platform on healthy volunteers, Huang and his team are now amplifying efforts to evaluate patients presenting with symptoms and signs of concern for COVID-19.

“Our next steps include development of a fully autonomous robotic system that can handle the vital signs monitoring by itself without intervention from the clinical staff,” he says. “In addition, we aim to further reduce the cost to maximize the cost-effectiveness of the system and its reach globally.”

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