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Doctors share what it’s like to team up with a robot to fight the coronavirus

Some coronavirus patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston are being greeted by a new kind of nurse: A four-legged robot named “Spot.”

Boston Dynamics’ famed dog-like robot has been working with patients at the hospital to provide a buffer between potentially contagious cases and swamped health care officials.

“It’s kind of fun working with it,” Dr. Peter Chai told Digital Trends. “[Spot] is not that hard to control, and it gets us to where we need to be without being exposed.”

The robot — which is best known for a series of viral videos showing its ability to walk, jump and even dance on four legs — has been lending a helping hand for the past two weeks, according to authorities at the hospital and Boston Dynamics.

“Our hope is that these tools can enable developers and roboticists to rapidly deploy robots in order to reduce risks to medical staff,” Boston Dynamics wrote in a blog post announcing the collaboration.

Chai said Spot is being used in the hospital’s outdoor triage tent for patients who have upper respiratory symptoms but are not sick enough to stay in the hospital. Spot greets patients with an iPad-like device that allows them to see and talk to a physician virtually. 

Since Spot is a collaborative research program for the hospital, patients have to give their consent before working with it, but those who do give their approval are getting a kick out of it, Chai told Digital Trends.

“Patients seem to like it — they’ve mostly responded positively,” Chai said. “It could be a potential byproduct of the pandemic age, where all of a sudden strange things aren’t that strange to us anymore.” 

Younger patients especially enjoy Spot, and Chai said people have been taking a lot of “Spot selfies” while being treated. 

Spot isn’t just a cute, interactive robot, though. The Boston Dynamics-made machine may have future uses like monitoring patients’ vitals. 

Dr. Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist and biomedical engineer at Bringham and Women’s Hospital, said the medical center is only using Spot for robotic-mediated telehealth between doctors and patients. But officials are exploring a way to apply sensors to Spot to let it directly check patients’ vitals, almost like a machine nurse.

“We’ve started the initial phase in developing new camera sensors that can be incorporated into Spot to measure vital sensors,” Traverso said, adding that Spot would take patients’ vitals by merely looking at them. 

Chai said Spot could also help patients recover in the post-coronavirus era. 

“We’ve definitely been thinking about this recovery period and where patients go in terms of rehab, and this is the perfect setting I think for Spot to walk around and interact with patients,” he said. 

Both Chai and Traverso agree we could see more of Spot — and other similar technologies — in hospitals in the near future. 

“Robotics, in general, can play a really interesting and important role as we amplify what we can do as providers in a safe and effective way,” Traverso said.

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