Robot connects Spokane doctors with rural patients

DAVENPORT, Wash. - Spokane doctors now have the ability to reach out and help diagnose and treat those in need in rural communities from the convenience of their hospital in the city.

With fewer doctors and shrinking budgets, rural hospitals are trying to find ways to bring specialists into smaller communities and technology is helping them bridge that gap.

Aptly nicknamed Hawkeye, an InTouch robot connects Lincoln Hospital in Davenport to Sacred Heart Medical Center's stroke center.

Rural robot healthcare

"It's not your old school robot," Dr. Fred Reed said.

"The technology allows us to be able to bring the specialist to the bedside, right to the patient in their home community, and be able to take care of them here," Tom Martin said. "It allows these rural hospitals to actually become extensions of the large urban community hospital."

When a doctor encounters a stroke patient with complications he or she is not familiar with they can immediately dial up a Sacred Heart specialist. Instead of putting that patient in an ambulance or MedStar helicopter they can use the InTouch robot to treat the patient.

With tightening budgets often times rural hospitals struggle to employ specialists; across the United States there are fewer than 100 stroke fellowships a year. To assist doctors, Hawkeye comes equipped with a video monitor, cameras, microphone and even a stethoscope for the doctor on the other end of the line, meaning stroke specialty doctors in Spokane can treat patients as far away as Davenport.

"Some things are just too hard to describe over the phone. Some things you try to communicate but there's just not words for it," Dr. Madeleine Geraghty explained.

However with Hawkeye, Sacred Heart can be a hub while rural hospitals are the spokes, one center connecting multiple hospitals to form a solid health care circle, which leads to "stepping across hospital boundaries and sharing access to physicians and access to networks," Geraghty said.