January 27, 2009

Tele-echography service to undergo full-scale trials

The 1st robot designed to perform teleoperated ultrasound scans was rolled out in 2003 as a result of research work by Professor Philippe Arbeille at Tours Hospital, France, supported by ESA* and CNES. Today, the ARTIS** project funded by ESA is set to test a full-scale robotic tele-echography service.
20 January 2009

Agile robots

An ultrasound scan is the 1st thing a doctor calls for if a patient is experiencing suspect abdominal pain. But an expert sonographer skilled in operating an echographic probe and interpreting scanner images isn’t always to hand. It was to overcome this deficiency that in 1997 Professor Philippe Arbeille at Tours Hospital came up with the idea of a teleoperated robotic arm, developed with support from ESA and CNES.

How does it work? A nurse or paramedic places the robotic arm with an ultrasound transducer attached to it on the patient’s abdomen.

At the same time, a sonographer tens or even hundreds of miles away teleoperates the probe using a joystick and performs a diagnosis on screen in real time.

Several versions of the robot have already demonstrated its capability and the concept’s feasibility. However, it still has to be validated in real-life operating conditions to evaluate its long-term potential.

“There’s a huge difference between a one-day technological demonstration and setting up a pre-operational service designed to run for several months, and this project is attempting to make that leap,” explains Didier Schmitt, ARTIS Project Manager at ESA.

Toward an operational service

“Through the ARTIS project, we’re going to verify that the tele-echography service works end to end,” says Nathalie Ribeiro, in charge of CNES’s healthcare development programme.“We’re also going to do a market survey to ensure there’s a real demand for the service which must remain affordable.”
Close attention will be paid to the quality of the satellite link, as that is what determines the quality of the ultrasound images. Telephone landlines are sometimes good enough, but a satellite link is vital when examining patients in remote areas..

“The bandwidth has to be sufficient to transmit ultrasound images in real time that are clear enough for doctors to interpret them,” explains Nathalie Ribeiro. “Our mission is also to verify that the service brings real medical benefits and cost savings for the hospital and the department of health and social security.”
The tele-echography service is expected to benefit smaller hospitals that often lack sonographers, as it will enable expert diagnosis and avoid systematically transferring patients to larger hospitals.

Teleoperated scanners will be installed at pilot sites during the 1st quarter of 2009 the service will be tested throughout this year. If results are good, tele-echography could be deployed in smaller hospitals as well as remote villages in Africa or South America.
* European Space Agency
** Advanced Robotic Tele-echography Integrated Service
*Advanced Robotic Tele-echography Integrated Service.
**European Space Agency : l'Agence spatiale européenne.

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