VALLEJO, Calif. – She’s given birth in Afghanistan, California and dozens of points in between.
Her name is Noelle and she’s a lifelike, pregnant robot used in increasing numbers of medical schools and hospital maternity wards.
Noelle is in demand because medicine is rapidly moving away from centuries-old training methods that use patients as guinea pigs and turning instead to high-tech simulations. It’s better to make a mistake on a $20,000 robot than a live patient.
The Institute of Medicine estimates that as many as 98,000 U.S. patients die annually from preventable medical errors.
“We’re trying to engineer out some of the errors,” said Dr. Paul Preston, an anesthesiologist at Kaiser Permanente and architect of the hospital chain’s 4-year-old pregnancy-care training program, in which Noelle plays a starring role. “We steal shamelessly from everybody and everywhere that has good training programs.”
Noelle is used in most of Kaiser’s 30 hospitals nationwide and other hospitals are putting in orders.
The Northwest Physicians Insurance Co. is sponsoring similar training programs in 22 hospitals in Oregon and Idaho, rolling out Noelle initially at five hospitals.
She can be programmed for a variety of complications and ultimately gives birth to a plastic doll that can change colors, from a healthy pink glow to the deadly blue of oxygen deficiency. The baby mannequin is wired to flash vital signs when hooked up to monitors.
Miami-based Gaumard Scientific, which makes Noelle, is one of two Florida companies making so-called “patient simulators.” Sarasota-based Medical Education Technologies Inc. sells a $68,000 robot called “Stan” – short for “standard man” – for training paramedics.
Noelle models run from $3,200 for a basic, non-computerized model, to a $20,000 computerized Noelle that best approximates a live birth.
The computerized mannequins emit realistic pulse rates, can urinate and breathe.
“If she is bleeding, there will be ample blood in evidence everywhere,” Preston said one rainy day last month as he put Noelle through her paces at Kaiser Permanente’s Vacaville hospital for about 50 doctors, nurses and others involved in caring for pregnant women.
The training session started in a hospital room, where Noelle was hooked up to monitoring machines and tended to by nurses and doctors.
David Isaza, an engineer with Gaumard, sat in a corner of the room with a laptop sending wireless signals to Noelle. With a keystroke, he can inflict all sorts of complications. Noelle can labor for hours and produce a breach baby or unexpectedly give birth in a matter of minutes.
In Vacaville, Noelle’s heart rate increased, prompting the nurse to examine her under the sheets. An umbilical cord was visible – not a good thing. Immediately, the nurse called a “code 777.” Several more medical personnel burst into the room and wheeled Noelle off to the operating room where she gave birth to twins after a frenzied 20-minute operation.