Thursday, April 5, 2012

Robot Anesthesia

You knew this was going to happen eventually. Somebody has invented a machine that can intubate a patient with an accuracy that is just as good, or even better, than a human anesthesiologist. This month's Anesthesiology News reports on a study out of McGill University in Montreal that details this system. Dr. Thomas Hemmerling uses a Kepler Intubation System to accomplish this trick.

The operator of the machine sits in a "cockpit" and manipulates the robot remotely. Using a mannequin, they were able to achieve an intubation success rate of 100%. The time to intubation dropped from 51 seconds down to 41 seconds over the course of thirty attempts. Using live patients, the team was able to successfully intubate their patients 91% of the time. The lone failure was due to fogging of the camera lens, which of course might happen with living subjects. The goal of the project is to eventually have the robot intubate patients autonomously without an operator controlling it.

Is this the end of anesthesiologists as we know it? Here is a robot that can potentially intubate a patient without human intervention. We've previously seen machines that can dose the proper amount of anesthetic better than humans can. We already have anesthesia machines that automatically chart a patient's vital signs in the operating room. Therefore, a nurse starts the IV in preop. A robot intubates the patient. Another mechanical contraption monitors the patient, anesthetizes the patient to just the right level of sedation, and charts its actions. Presumably it wouldn't take that much more expertise to program a robot to know when to extubate a patient. Then an OR transporter, human for now, can move the patient to recovery. Are we reduced to just watching machines watching patients? Well, somebody still has to read the sports pages to the surgeon while he's operating.

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