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Researchers, medical workers seek tech answers to Ebola outbreak

Sharon Gaudin | Nov. 10, 2014
Workshops held across the U.S. to bring health care workers, roboticists together.

Brown said scientists are swimming in Ebola-related documents and data and that health care researchers could use automated methods of testing for the virus, or any of a number of deadly viruses. They also could use telepresence technology, sensors to monitor the sterility of an environment, an automated or robotic way to disinfect equipment and specific area, and an automated way of handling blood being tested in labs.

Several technologists were on hand to offer what they have available now and what they are working on.

Jennifer Pagani, a principal engineer at Waltham, Mass.-based QinetiQ North America, a company that develops tactical robots for the military and first responders, said the best way to keep health care workers from catching the Ebola virus is to replace doctors and nurses with robots as much as possible.

Dr. Julian Goldman, director of the Program on Medical Device Interoperability at Massachusetts General Hospital, said his group had just completed a three-day hackathon devoted to finding ways to make devices, such as monitors, sensors and pumps, work better together.

He said his program has brought together multiple organizations to improve Ebola care by focusing on data sharing and device integration.

"How could we support the safety of patients and workers in Ebola care?" he asked via a livestream presentation in. "We need to improve monitoring of people. You need rich data to see what's happening. We need to minimize the contact with healthcare workers. It's difficult to monitor them and reach them. Now we all rush to people at their bedside. We need to move [care givers] away to limit their risk and exposure."

He said Mass General is looking at remote monitoring technologies, as well as sensors, tele-operated robots and camera-based systems that can monitor vital signs without a nurse touching the patient.

William Smart, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, showed the WPI audience a video of a tele-operated robot removing a sheet from a makeshift hospital bed and folding it up.

"Dealing with patients is really hard because you have to deal with people. Maybe robots could help with the cleanup, like taking sheets off a bed," Smart said. "Even with off-the-shelf stuff we've got in the lab -- off the shelf code -- we did an OK job... With minimal training for the operator, the robot took the blanket off the bed and then folded it up. If we can control this remotely, then maybe there's an opportunity."


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