On a more local level, many operating rooms now have robots that are manipulated by surgeons on-site. This form of robotic surgery is useful to perform minimally invasive procedures, since robots can perform smaller tasks with more precision than any human can.
Don’t be surprised, either, if some day in the future, you’re visited in your hospital room by a robot.
Some people who had laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery in a Baltimore hospital between January 2004 and July 2006 were visited by a six-foot-tall robot with a flat-screen monitor for a “face,” two other high-resolution monitors, and a microphone. The robots used a videoconference system to allow more frequent communication between patients and surgeons. More than three-fourths of those who were visited by the robot (and by human care providers) were discharged the day after surgery, versus nobody in another group who had human visits only. Of the latter, 77% were discharged on the second day.
The study was reported in the July 2007 issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons. Researchers said that robot-assisted close monitoring by the surgeons helped anticipate the types of adverse events that often cause longer hospitalizations.
Keeping your own electronic records
Until Dr. Hellman’s dream of worldwide access to medical information is realized, there is something you can do: Put your pertinent information on a flash (or “thumb”) drive and carry it with you in case of emergency. These small devices are about the size of a pocket knife, and many can be attached to a key chain. According to Dr. Kayur Patel, chief medical officer at Regional Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana, information can be entered in plain text or using a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word. For suggestions on what to include in your record, see “Personal Electronic Health Records.”
Another option is to buy a flash drive made specifically for medical records, such as MedicTag (for Windows operating system). This may make entering and saving data easier, and the device will be recognizable in emergency situations. If you’d rather not use a flash drive, services such as MedicAlert provide 24-hour emergency access to your health information and give you an identifying medical tag that can be worn as part of a bracelet, necklace, or watch.
What about using a Web-based health records program, such as those being offered by Google and Microsoft? Dr. Hellman cautions against it, as do the authors of an article in the April 17, 2008, edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.
While Dr. Hellman’s main concern is a lack of knowledge among some people about what should be included in the record, the article’s authors believe that personally controlled health records “are a disruptive innovation that inverts the current approach to medical records in that they are created by and reside with patients who grant permission for their use.” If it becomes the norm, this new approach, according to the authors, could disrupt studies that (anonymously) examine medical records. While they voice some concerns about privacy, the main problem that the authors have with personally controlled electronic records, as they currently exist, is that they’re not very useful. Without “broad agreement on standard data formats,” there are limits to what a patient can do with his records on such a system.
So until a universal format is adopted, it’s probably best to keep your records whichever way is easiest for you, and to make your basic health information available separately in case of an emergency.