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Utah Researchers Solve Psychologist Shortage with Telepresence Robots

November 05, 2015

We've known for some time now that telepresence has a great potential for bringing medical specialties to remote places. Examples of this happening were a bit slim, until a recent example from Utah. Researchers in Utah brought in a set of telepresence robots to address a lack of pediatric psychologists in the region, showing us just how the job is done.

The Utah project calls for researchers to buy a set of Revolve Robotics devices known as the Kubi line—Kubi, interestingly enough, means “neck” in Japanese—which is one of the simplest breeds around. Essentially a simple robot with space for a tablet computer, a Kubi unit runs around $600, and users can even try one out before buying thanks to a demonstration model sitting around the Kubi offices. It's immobile, though Revolve Robotics does offer mobile versions which are much more expensive.

Image via Shutterstock

University of Utah assistant professor Aaron Fischer noted that education psychologists have two primary tasks. The first is assessing students for psychological issues, and the second is providing regular consultations with teachers to provide the necessary tools to work with the students in question. Assessment work needs to be done in person, as it requires trust-building and extensive interaction. The problem with that is such a report requires a routine psychologist presence, and few schools have the resources to maintain such a position. This is where telepresence comes in.

Testing began with plain videoconferencing, and this was found an acceptable substitute in most cases. Then, tests moved to the Kubi cradle, and researchers discovered that that simulated eye contact the Kubi platform allowed for provided a lot better social interaction, and was therefore better than videoconferencing alone.

Telepresence was often cited as one of the best ways to bring unusual medical specialties, commonly limited to major cities with populations sufficient to require such services, to rural areas. The testing currently being done in Utah may lay the groundwork for a whole new telecommuting medical practice. A Kubi in every school would allow a remote medical office to service students and teachers all over the country.

We could be seeing the start of telepresence medicine taking hold in our schools. Though its outcome won't be fully known for some time, it's an exciting development.

Edited by Kyle Piscioniere

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