A team of Johns Hopkins researchers has built a robotic system that will give medical staff the ability to remotely operate ventilators and other bedside machines from outside intensive care rooms of patients with infectious diseases like COVID-19.
The system is still being tested, but initial trials have demonstrated how it could be deployed to help hospitals preserve protective gear, limit staff exposure to COVID-19 and provide more time for clinical work.
The invention’s rapid development since its March inception demonstrates the ability of robotics researchers from the university’s Whiting School of Engineering and respiratory clinical staff at The Johns Hopkins Hospital to work together to tackle one of the most vexing treatment issues to arise with the pandemic.
The pandemic spurred a surge of highly infectious intensive care patients requiring ventilators, infusion pumps and other equipment. Treating such patients requires hospital personnel to don and doff protective gear every time they enter and leave rooms, even for minor adjustments to machines. The process burns through limited supplies of personal protective equipment. It also wastes valuable time and personnel, as the procedure requires an additional person to assist with the changing of gowns, gloves, masks and other gear.
Routine adjustments typically take just a couple minutes inside a room. But putting on and removing gear added an additional six minutes to the process, says Jonathan Cope, a respiratory therapist who assisted with the project. Doing that 10 times in a single shift steals an entire hour that could have been spent delivering patient care, he says.
“This remote control system will be a force multiplier for our frontline clinicians," Cope says. "Being able to save time to deliver more care to more patients will pay huge dividends when we face massive patient surges during pandemics.”
During a recent test at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Biocontainment Unit, Cope used a touch-screen tablet in a separate room to change the oxygen percentage and volume delivered from a touch-screen ventilator attached to a mannequin in an adjoining room.
The robotic device is affixed to the ventilator’s screen with a horizontal bar secured across the top edge. The bar serves as a stationary track for the back-and-forth movement of two thin vertical bars that extend the full height of the screen. As the vertical bars sweep over the screen, a stylus it carries moves up and down according to commands, similar to how an Etch-a-Sketch’s drawing tool is steered over an X-Y axis. A camera connected to the top bar sends an image of the screen to the operator’s tablet.
“A few years ago, it would have seemed crazy to control life support equipment remotely,” Cope says, “but not given today’s existing environment. There is a huge need for this.” The system may not be ready in time to help deal specifically with COVID-19, but it will be useful in dealing with other infectious diseases, he says: “It will definitely end up in the ICU environment in the coming years.”