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Man learns he is dying from doctor in a robot

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It’s a situation no one ever wants to be in. You’re at the hospital, sitting with a loved one who’s terminally ill. You know there’s not much time left, but you’re hoping for the best – that maybe the latest test results will show there’s still the possibility of weeks, not days.

The doctor comes in, and it’s not what you wanted to hear. Your family member is going to die, and it’s going to happen very soon.

It’s hard enough to hear the prognosis from a doctor, standing there in person. It’s even harder for one family, who said they were given the devastating news by a doctor – from the video screen of a robot that just rolled into the room.

Not a routine visit

When 78-year-old Ernest Quintana couldn’t breathe and was rushed to a hospital earlier this month, his family already knew he was dying of chronic lung disease. They just didn’t know when.

At the hospital, a nurse came into the room to say a doctor would soon be making his rounds. So a short time later when a robot rolled into the room, Quintana’s granddaughter, Annalisia Wilharm told the Associated Press she thought it was going to be a routine visit.

It wasn’t.

The doctor said there’s no lung left; no lung to work with. Wilharm is repeating what the remote doctor is saying, because her grandfather doesn’t hear well on one side and the robot can’t maneuver to the other side of the hospital bed.

So she asks if the next step is hospice care at home. “I don’t know if he’s going to get home,” is the doctor’s reply. Quintana died two days after arriving at the hospital.

A loved one was gone and to add insult to injury, the family is not happy how it was handled. His daughter said news like that should have been delivered by a human being, not a machine.

Empathy and technology

Telemedicine is the catch-all phrase for doctors and nurses who see patients remotely via a video call or now, screens housed in a small upright robot on wheels. And the hospital in this case, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fremont, California, is defending its use of telemedicine.

In a written response, hospital administrators told the AP the robot’s visit was a follow-up from a previous consultation. They said it didn’t replace previous conversations with the late Quintana or his family, and that it also wasn’t used to deliver the initial diagnosis.

The hospital’s policy is to have a nurse or doctor in the room during remote consultations. But they also said it was a highly unusual situation and that they regret falling short of the patient’s expectations.

While telemedicine and the use of robots absolutely adds convenience in many situations, technology can also easily take away the very essence of having empathy and sharing feelings with another.

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