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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 59 - Patient service on the way, courtesy of roller-coasting Dr Kildares


AS A practising patient, I deplore the almost total disappearance among todayís doctors, of the soothing bedside manner. In its place has come the brisk deskside encounter.

This is a common surgery scenario. In the short time allotted to explain your latest affliction in a life of sore trials, ranging from vague malaise to suspected psychosomatic nose bleeds and often before a spatula has been brandished or a stethoscope flourished, you are leaving, forgetting to mention your hysterical dandruff, clutching a prescription slip and being asked to send in the next patient.

Where is the sympathy, the back-slapping assurance that you could linger on for years, the looks of patient understanding on doctorsí faces that no matter how grotesque or ridiculous your complaint, you expect your share of brightly-hued pills, the crazier the colours the better, and the smile of welcome to the medical world that says: "We may not be able to cure your ailment, but we will inquire sympathetically about your symptoms and try to spell your name correctly."

Many doctors, nowadays, seem to me to be aged around 14, but I can remember when they were grave, reverend seigneurs, carrying Gladstone-type bags filled with the tools of their trade, had the bearing of Old Testament patriarchs and the time not only to examine patients in their homes but also to discuss, therapeutically, with them topics that could range from the alleged criminal sloth of the working classes to the future of homo sapiens in an essentially unhealthy universe.

One conversationally-in-clined medico would eventually get round to prescribing something for me - invariably a nostrum tasting like rotten eggs beaten in sea water: patients were tough then. "This," he would say, beaming to indicate medical humour, "will make the hair grow on your teeth." It never did, nor did it encourage follicle growth in my bare, ruined scalp but the lift to my system when I stopped dosing myself was profound.

Whether young or old, at my sickbed or in surgeries, where doctors may look asleep but are, no doubt, listening intently to my hypochondriacal litany, I still have a deep respect for members of a profession often overworked and all too often taken for granted in this pill-popping age.

As the demand for treatment grows in our hard-pressed hospitals, ward visits by doctors may be augmented by five feet-tall robots, nicknamed Robo-docs, which, on computer-directed urethane rollers, can trundle from bed to bed, soothing patients, listening to their symptoms and showing that while patients have the bedsides, they have the manners.

The robots, already in use in the United States, are controlled by doctors who might be sitting miles away but will have their faces seen on the machinesí video-screen heads. With web-cameras, microphones and speakers, doctors will be able to examine patients using internet technology.

When one consultation is finished, the doctor, operating a joystick, in a hands-on, no-touch, bedside technique, can glide to other patients who can all be monitored without the need for personal visits by doctors or nurses.

The roller-coasting Dr Kildares were invented by InTouch Health Inc, a Californian robot-ics company. While production is still in its infancy, the company hopes to lease over 100 robots at around £2,000 a month by the end of next year.

Although there are no immediate plans to use them in Britain, the company believes it is only a question of time before they are lurching around our hospital wards, causing patients, as in a Baltimore hospital, to sag with laughter and nearly burst their stitches, bumping into doors and trolleys and, I suspect, lighting up like pin-ball machines at passing nurses.

The Dalek-looking devices could be a tonic for depressed patients. I suggest this advertisement: "Out of sorts? You donít like the way you feel and doctors donít like the way you look. Let Robo-doc monitor your body, if thatís what you call a body.

"Robo-doc will not take your pulse or insert thermometers into you but will otherwise try to glean what afflicts you and, with its smiling screen visage, make you feel that you are not a third-rate medical specimen but are participating in a glorious adventure into the mysterious world of medical science."

Next for introduction, electronic ward nurses? The possibility makes me feel ill. Somebody bring me a bedside manner quickly.


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