Robots Test Healthcare Waters in Japan, US

During the weekend, a rehabilitation nurse teams up with a primary care physician using VGo from his home during the weekend to assess a patient’s recovery and discuss her progress. (Sharon T Simpson/VGo Communications)
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During the weekend, a rehabilitation nurse teams up with a primary care physician using VGo from his home during the weekend to assess a patient’s recovery and discuss her progress. (Sharon T Simpson/VGo Communications)

Decades ago, the notion of robots assisting people was mostly the stuff of science fiction stories – harbingers of things to come.

Well, that day is here. Robots have been in use in auto manufacturing, rescue and demining operations for some time. But they are now beginning to be utilized the healthcare sector in the United States and Japan.


The Japanese government, according to the Japan Daily Press, is leading the way with financial assistance to companies that develop low-cost robots to care for the elderly and offset the country’s deficit in nursing care workers – a shortage shared by countries like India and the United States.

In the U.S., John Williams, who coined the term “Assistive Technology” while working in the field for 33 years, says the medical profession recognizes that robots can have a major role in meeting healthcare labor shortages, but is reluctant to move wholesale into robotics; and some healthcare workers fear robots might take over their jobs.

Nevertheless, a “dozen to two dozen companies” are manufacturing robots in the U.S., said Williams, although they are unable to meet the growing need. One of them is VGo Communications, which produces a robot called the VGo, which is used in both homes and hospitals for post-operative care, elderly and pediatric care.

“Last I heard,” he said, “they had manufactured about 800 robots and … a number of them are used in hospitals.”

So, what exactly is a VGo?

Bernard Terry, VGo Communications’ Vice President of Sales, says the four-foot-high VGo robot, which has audio and video capabilities, is ideal for people who are seated, bed-ridden, or use wheelchairs.

The robot allows a person using a PC or laptop or tablet to be in two places at once. After logging in to a secure site, the person can access and manipulate a remote VGo anywhere in the world and send it to a given location. “The VGo,” says Terry, “is the device which is visiting on your behalf. It is your avatar.”

So to visit a patient at a remote location, Terry would use a VGo to be “virtually” on the scene without making the trip himself. “If I am inspecting a wound or if I …  [want] to back up a little to see the range of motion, or if I want to move in a little closer … to see the wound, I can do that all the time in a remote control situation,” he said.

Williams, who took a VGo for a test drive, had the device tour a conference room and talk to people. “I could see everything that was happening,” he said. “And I could talk to the person. And the person could hear me and I could hear them.”

“At one point,” said Williams, “I stopped controlling it and I turned it over to the manufacturer who was about 400 miles away. And he could control it also.”

Up to six people can manipulate the same robot. “You can have somebody in China control the robot, let’s say – in Washington, DC,” added Williams.

Several VGo robots are in use in Asia and Greece. One “is on a remote island off the coast of Australia – 1,000 miles out to sea,” said Terry, where the VGo “acts as the entire clinical team.”

That allows the doctor to come in person once a month and use the VGO to connect with his patient the rest of the time to provide clinical and practical support, such as how to use certain devices, and emotional support if a patient is anxious or in pain.

What’s the cost?

Cost is a factor, cautions Williams. He recommends assessing patients’ needs before buying a robot, and learning how to operate it and accept it “as an equal.”

But for the VGo technology, Terry says the unit used to cost between $75,000-120,000, but now hovers around the $6,000 mark.

VGo is not the only robot in town. Others include Toyota’s Partner Robot, and El-E – the Elevated Engagement robot developed at Georgia Tech’s Center for Healthcare Robotics in Atlanta. And Williams envisions a day when robots will be just another appliance in the smart homes of the future.

Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA’s English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.