BALTIMORE -- The newest staff member at The Johns Hopkins Hospital stands just over 5 feet and looks like an oversized vacuum cleaner with a video screen for a head.
"Dr. Robot" is part of a study at Hopkins that asks: If a patient's own doctor isn't physically available, would that patient rather see and talk with their doctor through an interactive robot or see a substitute physician in person?
Dr. Louis Kavoussi, who is conducting the feasibility study, says the answer, so far, favors Dr. Robot.
"All these patients have a pre-existing relationship with me," said Kavoussi, a professor and vice chairman of Hopkins' urology department. "So this is not an impersonal visit. I know them. ... They'd absolutely rather see me, even if it's virtual."
The study, which will involve about 40 patients, is designed to gauge patients' attitudes toward Dr. Robot.
Kavoussi, a member of the scientific advisory board for InTouch Health Inc., the company that makes the robot, said he is optimistic the robot is "going to be accepted by patients as a mechanism to interact with their physicians."
If successful, the study will be followed by a larger one, with more patients at multiple hospitals, to make sure the care rendered by the robots is equivalent to in-person care. The current study is expected to be completed in October.
Kavoussi said the robots could one day be used to help treat patients when it's not possible to send in physicians, such as in military operations and natural disasters.
With the robot -- which has infrared sensors, a movable video screen, a zoom video camera, a microphone and a speaker -- doctors can examine patients from hundreds of miles away, using a joystick and an Internet connection.
"You get a lot of information from looking at a patient's face in terms of how they're doing -- their gestures, their aura," Kavoussi said. "All that can come across very, very well" through the robot.
When the robot rolled into Elizabeth Mints' room after her kidney surgery, she said she was surprised to see how clear Kavoussi's image appeared on the video monitor and how easily she could communicate with him through the robot.
"If he can't be there in person, this is a good substitute. You could see him smile and laugh when I said a couple things," said Mints, a 56-year-old retired police officer from Edgewater. "It made it seem not like you were talking to a machine. You got a sense that Dr. Kavoussi was on the other side."
On the Net:
Hopkins Hospital: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/