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Robots let Ariz. Mayo Clinic doctors care remotely

By Phil Villarreal

Arizona Daily Star

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2012 1:05 a.m. MDT

TUCSON, Ariz. — Starting in October, Phoenix-based neurology specialist Dr. Bart Demaerschalk will be able to roam the halls of Casa Grande Regional Medical Center, look into the eyes of stroke patients, diagnose conditions and consult with colleagues.

And he'll do it all from Phoenix using a joystick-like tool while looking at his computer monitor. His patients will be looking right back at him.

"I use a joystick device," he said. "It's much like a video game. It allows me to drive the robot in another environment."

Demaerschalk is medical director of the Mayo Clinic's telestroke system, which consists of a mobile robot doctors can control, adjust and speak through. ER doctors in Casa Grande will be able to contact the Mayo Clinic staff on a telestroke hotline.

The hospital, at 1800 E. Florence Blvd., in Casa Grande, is 43 miles from Marana.

Using telestroke, doctors can travel with other members of the health-care team throughout the hospital, moving from room to room and through elevators.

The Mayo Clinic developed the technology to care for stroke patients in rural settings. Demaerschalk said stroke neurologists and doctors working at the remote sites have used telestroke together to diagnose strokes with 96 percent accuracy in 1,000 cases.

The Casa Grande hospital is one of 11 in the network. The Mayo Clinic started the program in 2005.

The technology is already in hospitals in Bisbee, Cottonwood, Flagstaff, Globe, Kingman, Parker, Phoenix, Show Low, Yuma and Phoenix, as well as St. Joseph, Mo.

In addition to seeing patients himself, Demaerschalk and six other doctors in a rotation will have access to patients' brain scans to look for damage from blocked arteries or hemorrhages.

It's crucial for stroke victims to receive prompt care from experts, Demaerschalk said, because the earlier they're treated, the better chance the patient has of not having permanent brain injuries. Demaerschalk and his colleagues will be able to order clot-busting medications earlier, putting patients on a faster track to recovery.

Currently, stroke patients in the area must take ambulances or helicopters to Tucson or Phoenix hospitals to get that level of care.

"What our community members will receive is an early evaluation by the Mayo Neurologists and if their stroke symptoms meet certain criteria they can be administered clot-busting medications within the narrow window of time necessary to minimize permanent injury to the brain," said Rona Curphy, Casa Grande Regional Medical Center's president and CEO, via email.

According to a study published in the medical journal Neurology on Sept. 4, 2011, telestroke care saves money for hospitals that lack a staff neurologist.

The technology can be a godsend, but there is a learning curve to which doctors must adjust.

"I would say, yes, it's a little bit challenging," Demaerschalk said. "But within about an hour, you get the hang of it. It's not unlike any other video game."

Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com

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