Stroke patients at Marian Regional Medical Center may find a robot at their bedside, allowing expert neurologists to “beam in” and support local physicians providing treatment.

Marian plus its sister facilities, Arroyo Grande Community Hospital and French Hospital Medical Center, have launched a neuroscience and stroke program in conjunction with Dignity Health Telemedicine Robots.

The program pairs expert neurologists with local emergency department physicians needing to consult with a specialist about stroke or other neuroscience patients.

Using a life-sized robot dubbed Sheldon — named by staff after the chief geek in The Big Bang Theory — experts located miles away from the Central Coast can help evaluate neurological conditions of patients at Marian’s Emergency Department.

“This is the future of the care we can provide here in our community,” said Kerin Mase, executive vice president of Marian Regional Medical Center.

The robots connect local physicians with experts around the clock, especially vital since local neurologists were available for consultations only half a month.

“Using telemedicine allows us to provide that neurologic expertise every day, rather than just half the time, to support our Emergency Department physician colleagues and the hospitalists,” said Kirsten Featherstone, a registered nurse and Dignity Health Central Coast Neuroscience Services manager. “This provides urgent telemedicine neurologic consultant.”

The life-sized robot employs two-way video and audio feeds so a doctor can remotely assess a patient, by having a stroke victim identify images or words, reviewing test results and zooming in on a patient’s pupils.

“One of our neurologists likes to say the pupil is the window to the brain,” Jason Close, a Dignity Health program manager, said as he demonstrated from his out-of-town location Sheldon’s zooming capability by getting a detailed look at a pen sitting on a table several feet away.

“It’s very good image quality on the camera,” he said.

An expert neurologist can swivel the camera to look at the screens of equipment monitoring a patient.

“I can even dance a little bit if you like,” Close said after directing Sheldon to move forward and backward.

The hospital has employed Sheldon since April. The robot is programmed with the layout of the Emergency Department and through an auto-drive feature can make its way to into patient’s rooms.

When the consult is finished, the expert can hit the “dock” function and Sheldon returns to its charging station so the nurse doesn’t have to take time away from patients to do that chore.

Another robot, Dexter, is stationed on the Critical Care Unit, but a nurse needs to push it into a patient’s room.

The time from contacting the consultant until the expert is involved in the case averages between six and 10 minutes, Featherstone said.

“It’s really timely and quick,” Featherstone said.

“It’s the consistency of care we want,” added Dr. David Ketelaar, director of the Marian Emergency Department.

When a neurologist is available, they’re able to provide a high level of care. Sheldon helps continue that high level of care during  the gap when a local specialist isn’t available, Ketelaar said.

Sheldon allows the expert to interact with the patient and then work with emergency physicians in coming up with a treatment plan.

The real time and “face-to-face” interaction make a big difference in caring for patients, Ketelaar said.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to convey some of the complex conditions some of these patients are having on the telephone to another physician,” Ketelaar said.

The expert, working with on-site nurses, also can conduct an assessment from afar.

“You can get a very quick feel for the level of the deficits someone has by just walking in the room and interacting with  them,” Ketelaar said. “You can’t get that in a telephone consult of someone trying to describe it.”

In addition to Dignity Health’s network of experts, the local doctors can contact Stanford Health Care stroke specialists 24 hours a day, according to Marian officials. The local hospitals are working to enhance the partnership with Stanford.

“It’s pretty amazing what we’re able to do with technology,” Mase added.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.