CLINTON — A doctor patrols the halls at Clinton’s Mercy Medical Center, talking to stroke patients, monitoring their vitals. A nurse helps gather information for prognoses. The doctor processes the data and refers treatment.
Half an hour later, the same doctor might see a patient in Marshalltown. Or perhaps in Council Bluffs, on the other side of the state.
Yet he never leaves his Iowa City office. In his clutch is a joystick, not a clipboard.
Administrators at Mercy’s Clinton branch uphold their stroke robot as a gem for forward-thinking treatment. Its makeup isn’t flesh and blood but wires, circuits and a powerful processor using fiber optics to allow instantaneous flow of patient records. Behind the bot are the brains of the best stroke doctors the state has to offer.
Physicians at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics control this device — known locally as “the doctor with hands in its pockets” — from miles away. And they “see” patients thanks to cameras on the robot.
“Once you’re done with one site, you’re pulling up another one,” said Rod Tokheim, Mercy-Clinton’s VP of Business Development. “You’re moving from Carroll to Fort Dodge to someplace else, very fast. It’s just like making a phone call.”
Technology like this falls under the telemedicine umbrella and it exists throughout hundreds of Iowa hospitals. The Clinton branch can put people in touch with renowned psychiatrists and neurologists. In Mason City, patients can receive the best nephrology (kidney) treatment from practitioners in Des Moines.
Telemedicine is viewed as a way to combat a wave of health care demand expected after passage of the Affordable Care Act. Technology has advanced in ways that connect some doctors to patients from home.
“In a perfect world, where we have specialists everywhere, we don’t need things like tele-nephrology,” said Dave Hickman, regional director of the Mercy Health Network in Des Moines. “But unfortunately there’s a shortage of a lot of specialists.”