A research initiative from Vanderbilt University hopes to ultimately create robots that will work in a hospital's emergency room.

The researchers say the technology is actually available now. These robots wouldn't take the place of doctors or nurses, or even deal with seriously ill patients, but they would take over certain small but necessary duties to create efficiencies. The team is still in the design phase of the project but looks to create a prototype by next spring. It is calling the system TriageBot.

Mitch Wilkes, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of the team members, said there are three separate robots in their initial design. These robots are overseen by a high level intelligent system that would know the hospital's layout and protocols.

The first robot would be more a smart kiosk, using touch screen capabilities. It would attend to vital things like taking someone's blood pressure or weight. It wouldn't invade their body, so they wouldn't be sticking a thermometer or needle in there. It would be able to enter a patient's data, history and the usual info gathering you need to do when you enter a medical facility. It could make decisions on the severity of the condition and if necessary, send a patient to the ER, Wilkes said.

The next robot would monitor a patient while they were in the ER waiting area. They would ensure the patient is still alert and continue to measure vital signs. This could prevent a patient from becoming acute while in the waiting area. The last robot would be in the treatment area, where it would provide a faster response time to patients than doctors or nurses are often able to provide.

Acute patients can go in the treatment area and wait a long time before someone gets back to them, Wilkes said. This would be an instrumented chair that could monitor various vital signs and track information about the patient. It would interact with the medical people and figure out what other things could be deduced.

The researchers are working with medical specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on the project. Karen Miller, senior associate in emergency medicine at the University's Hospital and someone who has worked in several ERs as a nurse, said this kind of help could go a long way in an ER.

We don't know exactly how it will work yet, but we do have a great sense that it will provide extra eyes and ears to help assist to what we're doing already. As an ER physician or nurse, you can always use more minutes in the day. I think this will add value, Miller said.

Miller says it's hard to come up with a specific example of where TriageBot would be helpful since every illness or disease is different. For example, a broken arm can range from being minor to extreme. She said things like rashes and extremity pain are possibilities, but it would probably be determined on a case by case example.

Still, the potential is exciting, she said. For people who work in triage, improving patient care - that's our goal. So in that regard, the potential is attractive.

Wilkes presented a paper detailing the project titled, Heterogeneous Artificial Agents for Triage Nurse Assistance, at the Humanoids 2010 conference held in Nashville. He said the project will be ongoing for some time. The team is currently looking for additional funding, specifically from the government.