Researchers, medical workers seek tech answers to Ebola outbreak

WORCESTER, Mass. -- Researchers in robotics will meet with health care and aid workers around the country Friday to get ideas on how technology could help fight the deadly Ebola outbreak, as well as the spread of other dangerous viruses.

"When someone says robots, I'm old enough that this is what I see," said Catherine Brown, a veterinarian with the Massachusetts Bureau of Infectious Disease, looking at an image of R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars during a session this morning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. "I know this is not what robotics is really like, but I'm not sure what that is... You're always chasing the last outbreak. That's really unfair and it's a huge, huge problem for the countries involved. We're going to be talking about opportunities for the robotics community to engage with the public health and the medical community."

Led by WPI and Texas A&M University, the workshops are aimed at providing a forum for health care workers to discuss with technologists what they need to better care for Ebola patients, to help stop the spread of the virus and to protect care givers from contracting the disease.

The multi-location Safety Robotics for Ebola Workers was being simulcast at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, WPI, Texas A&M and the University of California, Berkeley. While the separate morning session at WPI was open to the press, the afternoon simulcast session was closed.

At the WPI meeting, the focus was on what medical responders need to work in countries like Liberia, that have been hard hit by the outbreak. They also discussed needs in the U.S., as well as the fact that the Ebola outbreak is only one of the deadly viruses that health care workers are grappling with around the world.

"There are many diseases in West Africa that are much more common than the Ebola virus," Brown said. Being a veterinarian, she added, is helpful in dealing with a virus that was transmitted to humans from animals. "If you come from that area and have a fever, it's much more common that you have malaria... This is an issue where we need more automated methods of doing testing."

The 2014 Ebola epidemic is the largest in history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, largely the nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As of Nov. 2, there have been 13,042 reported cases of Ebola and 4,818 related deaths around the world, the CDC reports.

There have been two imported cases, including one death, and two locally acquired cases of Ebola in the U.S., the health organization said.

Brown said scientists are swimming in Ebola-related documents and data and that health care researchers could use automated methods of testing for the virus, or any of a number of deadly viruses. They also could use telepresence technology, sensors to monitor the sterility of an environment, an automated or robotic way to disinfect equipment and specific area, and an automated way of handling blood being tested in labs.

Several technologists were on hand to offer what they have available now and what they are working on.

Jennifer Pagani, a principal engineer at Waltham, Mass.-based QinetiQ North America, a company that develops tactical robots for the military and first responders, said the best way to keep health care workers from catching the Ebola virus is to replace doctors and nurses with robots as much as possible.

Dr. Julian Goldman, director of the Program on Medical Device Interoperability at Massachusetts General Hospital, said his group had just completed a three-day hackathon devoted to finding ways to make devices, such as monitors, sensors and pumps, work better together.

He said his program has brought together multiple organizations to improve Ebola care by focusing on data sharing and device integration.

"How could we support the safety of patients and workers in Ebola care?" he asked via a livestream presentation in. "We need to improve monitoring of people. You need rich data to see what's happening. We need to minimize the contact with healthcare workers. It's difficult to monitor them and reach them. Now we all rush to people at their bedside. We need to move [care givers] away to limit their risk and exposure."

He said Mass General is looking at remote monitoring technologies, as well as sensors, tele-operated robots and camera-based systems that can monitor vital signs without a nurse touching the patient.

William Smart, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, showed the WPI audience a video of a tele-operated robot removing a sheet from a makeshift hospital bed and folding it up.

"Dealing with patients is really hard because you have to deal with people. Maybe robots could help with the cleanup, like taking sheets off a bed," Smart said. "Even with off-the-shelf stuff we've got in the lab -- off the shelf code -- we did an OK job... With minimal training for the operator, the robot took the blanket off the bed and then folded it up. If we can control this remotely, then maybe there's an opportunity."

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