The latest emergency room specialist at Johnston Health is a robot.
Or rather, it’s more of a robotic avatar for specialists located 60 miles away at the Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill.
Through the wonders of what’s known as telemedicine, patients admitted with severe burns in Smithfield will now receive real-time examinations from doctors on the other side of the Triangle. A specialist will be on call 24/7, and the doctor will interact with patients through software that runs on Internet-connected laptops, smartphones and tablets.
The service went live at Johnston Health on July 29, and staff took part in a practice run to try out the new machinery. Nurse Mary Butler pretended to be a burn victim, and she received a remote examination from Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the Jaycee Burn Center.
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The high-tech machine features a video screen, on which Butler could see a live video Cairns’ face, along with a smaller feed showing her what Cairns was seeing through the robot. Cairns likes sharing his perspective with patients, he said, because it helps them to direct his attention to the places they want the doctor to see.
As Cairns sat at his desk in Chapel Hill, the movements of his mouse caused the robot’s head to turn and look around the examining room in Smithfield. If he has wanted to hear Butler’s heart beat, a nurse could have plugged a special stethoscope into the robot.
Throughout the examination, Cairns and Butler spoke naturally and in real-time, as did other emergency room staff who played the roles of physicians and nurses.
After the mock procedure, Butler said seeing Cairns’ face on the screen put her at ease with the new technology.
“I felt like I was talking to a real doctor, not a robot,” she said.
Thanks to a $430,000 grant from the Duke Endowment, UNC Health Care is leasing InTouch Health-brand telemedicine machines to connect each of its affiliated hospitals with the burn center. UNC is providing matching funds for the program, and the grant will help cover the first two years.
Cairns wrote the application for the grant, and he said the idea is to provide better treatment for burn victims across the UNC system.
“It’s about extending our partnership so we can take better care of our patients and their families,” he said.
More than 10,000 North Carolinans suffer severe burns each year, and more than 2,000 of those are treated in one of the state’s hospitals, according to UNC. However, the state has just two burn centers, so fewer than 60 percent of patients receive treatment at a dedicated facility.
In the most severe cases, it’s obvious that a patient needs to be transferred to the burn center, said Daniel Register, director of emergency services for Johnston Health. Where telemedecine will help the most, he said, is in the those in-between cases, such as when a person has severe burns to his arms or legs.
Once a specialist takes a look at the injuries remotely, Register said, he can tell staff in Smithfield whether the patient needs to take a trip to Chapel Hill. Depending on what he sees, the specialist might recommend using a helicopter instead of an ambulance. And whether or not a transfer is necessary, Register said, the specialist will give the staff in Smithfield directions to treat the burns and ease the pain.
“Not everyone needs to go to Chapel Hill, but we were probably discharging people before who should have gone to UNC,” Register said.
Nurse Lori Giggey took part in the demonstration, and she said it was awesome watching Cairns interact remotely with Butler through the robot.
“This is the age of the new medicine,” she said. “I think it’s one of the benefits of becoming part of a larger organization, which is great. Everyone’s working together as a team.”