Terminal patient learns he's going to die from a robot doctor

The event has prompted discussions about whether it's appropriate to de-personalize healthcare via telepresence robots.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Last week, a terminally ill man was told he would die within a matter of days by a doctor beamed into the room via a telemedicine robot's HD video screen. According to AP, 78-year-old Ernest Quintana was rushed to the hospital after suffering shortness of breath related to chronic lung disease.

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Quintana's illness had already been diagnosed as terminal, but the family was surprised and angered when a robot rolled into the intensive care unit and a doctor delivered the news that Quintana would likely die within days via video.

The event has prompted discussions about the appropriateness of using robots in sensitive settings where empathy is expected.

"If you're coming to tell us normal news, that's fine," Quintana's daughter Catherine Quintana told AP, "but if you're coming to tell us there's no lung left and we want to put you on a morphine drip until you die, it should be done by a human being and not a machine."

Telemedicine solutions are becoming increasingly common in hospitals due to staff shortfalls. They're also creeping into non-traditional settings, including offices and schools. I recently covered the launch of a new robotic telemedicine station that can scan patients using thermal sensors and dispense prescription drugs autonomously following a video conference consultation with a doctor.

But as mobile robots haltingly join everyday life, we're seeing instances of cultural pushback. Earlier this year, a hotel in Japan fired its robot staff for being creepy and unhelpful. Drums of digital ink have been spilled in the discussion about sex robots, and shoppers have reported frustrating interactions with robotic store clerks who lack a certain situational awareness and empathy.

Part of the cultural resistance we're seeing is due to an emotional intelligence divide between robots and humans. Robots that are touted as emotionally intelligent can pick up on cues of body language and voice and react in a calculated manner, but so far the effect isn't fully convincing. 

Research suggests, however, that we're hard-wired to consider robots as full social agents. As robots start to display more convincing emotional intelligence, it's likely barriers to interaction with machines will fall. There's a large field in robotics dedicated to streamlining Human-Robot interaction, and insights from the field suggest even a telepresence robot can be made to exhibit some level of empathy via gestures, movement, and stance. 

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In the case of Ernest Quintana, who passed away last week, hospital administrators responded via a written statement with a partial defense. Quintana had already received his terminal diagnosis by a human doctor prior to the hospital visit in question, although it wasn't fully clear how long he had. However, hospital protocol dictates that a human nurse or other staff member be in the room to monitor the telepresence robot and interact with patients as needed, and that didn't happen.

According to administers:

"With new technology, we can extend that to offer video interactions over smart phones or video screens in the hospital. That said, we don't support or encourage the use of technology to replace the personal interactions between our patients and their care teams – we understand how important this is for all concerned, and regret that we fell short of the family's expectations. We will use this as an opportunity to review how to improve patient experience with tele-video capabilities."

Hospital administrators also took exception to the use of the word robot, suggesting it mischaracterized the live video conferencing technology.

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