A common way to assess the operational efficiency of medical facilities that have inpatient units is by taking the total number of workers and dividing it by the number of beds. At first glance it seems surprising that 5-8 full-time workers per bed is not uncommon. With an average of two or three labor hours per day being spent on direct patient care, the question arises as to where the majority of labor is spent in running these facilities. Besides covering the cost of nurses and other medical professionals, operating budgets encompass administrative personnel, kitchen workers, grounds and maintenance crews and security officers. Cleaning and sanitation and movement of commodities throughout the facility are additional tasks performed through manual labor.
Many of the mundane tasks performed in health care environments, such as cleaning toilets, walls and windows, could be automated today. Not only would sanitation be improved, but facility operators would be able to retrain and reallocate personnel to better paying jobs that are in demand like nursing. With a capable telerobotic system installed staff sharing within medical networks and gradual transfer of tasks from teleoperated to robotic may lead to a halving of total facility operational costs.
Once being proven safe for interaction with humans and having passed regulatory hurdles for use in medical facilities, small rooms or even booths equipped with fully accessorized Cedric units could be installed in business locations that operate pharmacies.
Among the potential benefits of telemedicine booths are:
- Removal of geographical barriers as to where (and when) a physician may practice.
- Versatility of services rendered; 24 hour access to a diverse range of medical professionals, seamless on-line consults with specialists and one-stop prescription fulfillment.
- Fostering of competition between healthcare providers and, potentially, the emergence of one or more nationwide telemedicine franchises.
- Improved reimbursement by insurance companies.
- Financial incentives being offered by physicians, insurance companies, drug manufacturers, educational and non-profit institutions (i.e. skin cancer foundation) or even the government to patients for selling or licensing images recorded during their diagnosis and/or treatment.
Subsequent to the perfection of telemedicine booths, telerobots will begin to bring the benefits outlined above to home environments ranging from apartment buildings to homes located in rural areas.
Items 4 and 5 above are relevant to the creation of a national outcomes database. Today, most doctors do not create multimedia documentation of skin conditions, ear infections or other ailments with visible characteristics. Using a camera or other imaging device carries a cost but provides little (apparent) tangible benefit. Millions of medical procedures are performed annually without contributing to a collective multimedia database that, over time, would be invaluable for correlating the outcome of medical treatments with medical conditions.
With a "camera-in-the-loop", an essential component of nearly all telerobotics applications, the situation is reversed. The cost of recording visual information becomes negligible and, in most cases, the images will be stored as part of the patient's medical record. Medical professionals using telerobots for diagnosis and treatment will be well-equipped to gauge size, color and texture of visible conditions and to track changes over time. Image magnification and an ability to call up still pictures or video from related databases for side-by-side comparison are additional tools that will be available to telerobotics practitioners. Pattern recognition software will be adapted and new software created to determine boundaries of afflicted areas and to accurately calculate their size. This will help semi-automate image interpretation, reduce subjectivity in diagnoses and quantify the data for statistical analysis.
Medical imagery, collected and stored among thousands of computers and servers, will reach petabyte (peta = one quadrillion) proportions in short order and complicate attempts to bring order to the ever-growing ocean of data. Annotation of "metadata", basically informational labels, to the record will facilitate later searches for key information. This can be efficiently done through audible notation using voice recognition software at the time of data collection. It is likely that attractive business opportunities to develop algorithms that automatically mine the data, perform pattern recognition and highlight correlations and trends will necessarily emerge.