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Meet RONI the robot

Photos by Reed Hutchinson UCLA Photographic Services
Neil Martin communicates with Tim Copeland, thanks to RONI (right), the first robot to be used in an ICU.

A Virtual Bedside Manner

The newest employee on the seventh story of the UCLA Medical Center whirs softly across the floor of the intensive care unit as nurses bustle around patients’ partitions decked with high-tech monitors and the latest in electronic medical equipment.

Perhaps that’s why RONI, short for “Robot of the Neuro ICU” and formally known as RP-6, appears at home in the neurosurgery ICU. It rolls up to nurses and pleasantly asks about the events of the morning, swiveling its large monitor-head to decipher data displayed on a wall monitor.

Standing 5 feet, 6 inches tall — from its sturdy triangular-shaped base to the top of its video camera — RONI is the alter ego of Neil Martin, chief of neurosurgery, who is physically in his NPI office but virtually on RONI’s monitor-head.

Everything RONI sees shows up on one of two monitors in front of Martin. Using a joy stick, Martin steers around obstacles, which are detected by the robot’s infrared sensors and appear as markers on the doctor’s screen. Martin also gets a view of what the nurses see. Occasionally, he glances at another monitor to see information from hospital databases. In this way, he can view X-rays, reports, lab results or vital signs.

The first institution to use a robot in an ICU, the UCLA Medical Center is one of a dozen hospitals evaluating the communication robot as a way of making critical-care specialists more available to patients, their families and hospital staff. Studies have shown that RONI can decrease morbidity, mortality and the length of a patient’s hospital stay, not to mention the cost of care.

“This is no substitute for normal interaction with a patient, which I continue to have as always,” said Martin. Along with his colleague, Paul Vespa, Martin can monitor patients both from his office and home. “The vast majority of my interactions with patients and families are personal,” he said. “But if one of my patients has a problem at 3 a.m. and I need to deal with it in three minutes, I can be there immediately through the robot.”

While patients feel awkward at first talking to a robot, “within a minute, they start interacting as if you were standing right there,” Martin said. “They’re looking at your face, and you’re looking at theirs.”

Tim Copeland, 15, was in the ICU recovering from surgery when he met RONI. “I was surprised, to say the least,” he recalled. “But the screen was large enough, so I saw Dr. Martin’s whole face, and the quality of the audio was so good that it sounded like he was right there.” If RONI makes it more convenient for Dr. Martin to see patients like him more often, Copeland added, “then I think it’s a good idea.”

Robots like RONI may be the best way to help critical-care specialists treat older, sicker patients as the ranks of seniors swell. What’s more, robots may one day enable specialists in urban hospitals to become virtually available in rural hospitals or remote Army field hospitals, Martin said.

One age bracket in particular is likely to welcome the change. “When I visited a 14-year-old boy in the pediatric unit, the nurse asked me if the robot could visit the other kids,” Martin said. “They all wanted to talk to the robot.”