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.
"I think when we get over there and people see the opportunity of the system, I am going to get very little time on that robot," she said. "We'll see how much I get to drive it after that first week. I'm sure there will be lots of people who want to get in there and talk with patients."
For now, though, Vecna Cares is focused on creating more usable medical records.
"Currently, in every ETU, they use paper," said Theobald. "When a patient is triaged and moved to an isolation area, their paper records stay with them. If the patient is isolated, so is their paperwork. The doctors try to remember information about the patient and then rush out and write it down. And they're doing that in [quarantined] patient wards that could hold anywhere from 20 to 100 beds."
While that makes it difficult to track the status of each patient, it also makes it nearly impossible to get the information needed to study the outbreak.
"It's about daily care but it's also about learning," added Theobald. "People are talking with each other so as we collect more data, we're able to share that information across other treatment centers so we can improve clinical regimens and change outcomes for more people."
She also noted that the electronic records system should help researchers. Right now, when a sample, such as blood, reaches a laboratory with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to be studied, it might arrive with a torn piece of cardboard that simply notes whether the patient was male or female and when the patient died.
With shareable electronic medical records, researchers should be able to find out how long a patient was sick, his or her age, where the person was from, any other illnesses involved and treatments received.
"Doing this kind of data sharing and filtering, and doing data drill downs, it just wouldn't have been possible with the data system they're using now," Theobald said.
Brent Terry, a vice president with VGo, said the company's eager to find out how well the telepresence robot works in Liberia.
"Depending on what they learn, we may need to make some changes," he said. "There's tremendous heat and moisture there at this time of year.... It's basically in a steam bath and that could be an issue for the electronics. We may need to do some special work to bulletproof the processors to protect them from potential damage."
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