'MedBots' Provide Options for Distance Education

'MedBots' Provide Options for Distance Education

By Barry D. Smith Dec 08, 2015

How many of you know what a mobile virtual presence device is? Of those who said yes, how many first heard of them from an episode of The Big Bang Theory? Well, get ready to put your geek on because we are about to look at how these devices might be used for prehospital education and maybe even more.

Using the webcam of the iPad, the user can see what is in front of them as they roll the device around. Someone looking at the device can see and interact with the user on the screen. Think of it as a robot stick figure. The user can be anywhere in the world as long as both users have a Wi-Fi connection.

They were first used in the business world for people to attend meetings without having to actually be at the meeting. They were also used at education institutions for long distance learning.

David Gurchiek, PhD, is a former paramedic and current department chairman for Montana State University's nursing, health and public safety programs in Billings, Montana.

"We currently have online and hybrid training programs that include online and lab skills days at the university," explains Gurchiek. "As far as I can tell, no one else is using these devices for paramedic training.” Gurchiek says. “In the traditional smart classroom used for distance learning, the cameras in the room don't move. With these devices, the students can move the device and look at who is talking or face someone they want to talk to. We are calling them MedBots."

Double Robotics uses an iPad Air 2 mounted on a pole attached to a set of wheels. The pole can be extended or retracted to put the iPad at different heights. The devices have dual cameras, one looking forward and one looking down. The camera pointed down is to assist in moving.

What Gurchiek realized, the lab students could see patient simulators lying on the floor with the camera pointed downward. The student user can control the MedBot from another iPad or a computer. When someone looks at the MedBot, they will see the users face via the webcam of the user's device. Since the MedBot moves, the student can roll to a location around the patient to get a different view or get a better look at a monitor, etc. The instructors will design the lab situations so the students using the device will be able to move around and see everything they need to see to assess the patient.

"The way we see this being used is the distant student using the Medbot will be the team leader and will direct the care of the other students who are actually in the room with the simulator," says Gurchiek. "The distance learners will still come to class on certain days to do the individual psychomotor skills."

Gurchiek says there are two students who will be doing a pilot program with the MedBots for the Spring class, which begins January 2016.

“Both live quite a distance from the campus,” Gurchiek says. “They will also have the option to come class anytime they wish. The MedBots will always be chaperoned when they move around the campus so nothing happens to them."

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One of the questions to the professors about their use was if they are a distraction to the other students, Gurchiek says.

“They said it only took about an hour for the other students to treat the devices like any other student,” Gurchiek says. “The MedBots are very easy to learn how to use. Just simple forward, backward, left, and right controls on the screen."

The MedBots are already having some unintended consequences. Gurchiek did a demonstration of the system with his paramedic advisory board. The medical director was there and said he wanted one of MedBots for himself so he could be in the class more often and observe and interact with the students.

Gurchiek says they will look at how the students perform on quizzes, tests and licensing exams to compare that data to traditional students to evaluate their methods.

“We also do employer surveys of all of our students and will add some questions to see if there is any difference in the quality or knowledge of the distance learning students using the MedBots," Gurchiek says.

The program will try to get grant money to pay for the MedBots for the next semester, Gurchiek says.

"For the fall 2016 class, we will have six MedBots. We thought that would be a good number,” Gurchiek says. “A complete unit costs about $4,000. We are looking at involving two fire departments for the fall class that are a good distance from the campus. I want small rural communities to have the opportunity to have paramedics. We may even have these students do their clinical rotations at their local hospitals instead of bringing them to Billings."

Gurchiek says in the future, they want to offer CMEs by using the MedBots.

“Right now, the National Registry only allows so many hours of video CMEs,” Gurchiek says. “But, in our view, this is not video or distance education. It is virtual education. The student is there in the classroom."

Letting the imagination run, there are other areas of the prehospital world where these devices might be used. For example, virtually attending a major conference such as EMS World Expo. You pay a fee to use the device in addition to the cost of the conference. But, you wouldn't be paying for air fare, hotel, meals or car rental. You could virtually attend from anywhere in the world.

School nurses could also benefit from them. It is rare for a school nurse to be dedicated to a single campus. With a MVPD at each school, one nurse could cover many campuses. If it was an emergency, the video could even be provided to the dispatch center or EMS personnel enroute to the location.

There are many uses the MedBots could cover.

What would Sheldon Cooper think?

Barry D. Smith is an instructor in the Education Department at the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA) in Reno, NV. Contact him at bsmith@remsa-cf.com.

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