When a California Man Was Dying, a Robot Delivered the Bad News

Kaiser Permanente is facing scrutiny after a bad prognosis is delivered via video screen

Annalisia Wilharm couldn’t believe it when she was told her grandfather was dying.

The prognosis wasn’t necessarily a surprise—the 79-year-old Ernest Quintana had been gravely ill and was hospitalized at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center’s emergency department in Fremont. What she couldn’t believe is how she found out.

As she stood by her grandfather’s side in the ICU and waited for his doctor, a robot wheeled itself into the room. On a video screen affixed to the contraption, known as a remote-presence or telepresence robot, they could see a man in a polo shirt and headset. While he looked like a telemarketer using Facetime, this was Ernest’s doctor.

Annalisia shot the encounter on video, thinking at first that she could share the test results with her family. “When I took the video, I didn’t realize all of this was going to unfold,” she told KTVU.

The doctor delivered the update in the metallic tones of the robot’s speakers. He told Ernest that his lungs were in the process of failing and that he would likely die soon.

Ernest, however, couldn’t hear what the doctor was saying. “He already has a problem hearing,” his daughter, Catherine, said. Distorted by the speakers, the doctor’s voice was inaudible to Ernest, leaving Annalisia to repeat everything he said to her grandfather.

“Devastated,” Annalisa said, holding back tears. “I was going to lose my grandfather. We knew that this was coming and that he was very sick. But I don’t think somebody should get the news delivered that way. It should have been a human being come in.”

In a statement to KTVU, Kaiser Permanente Greater Southern Alameda County senior vice president Michelle Gaskill-Hames described the event as “a highly unusual circumstance.”

“We use video technology as an appropriate enhancement to the care team, and a way to bring additional consultative expertise to the bedside,” she wrote.

Catherine says that she spoke to hospital staff about the robot. According to her, they said that “it’s policy, that’s what we do now.”

According to the New York Times, “the American Medical Association’s ethical code for telemedicine raises possible ethical issues apart from a loss of intimacy in a patient-doctor relationship, such as data security.”

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. It just shouldn’t happen,” Catherine said.

Ernest Quintana passed away on Tuesday.

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