Fremont, CA — Ernest Quintana knew he had long suffered from a deadly lung disease when he was rushed to the hospital, but the news of his imminent death still profoundly shocked him and his family—not because of its grimness but who delivered it: a robot. “The nurse came around and said the doctor was going to make rounds, and I thought, ‘OK, no big deal,’” Quintana’s granddaughter, Annalisia Wilharm, told Fox local news. Then a robot rolled in, and a doctor appeared on a video screen and said, “You might not make it home.” Quintana died three days later.

“We knew that this was coming,” said Wilharm. “But I don’t think somebody should get the news delivered that way. It should have been a human being.” 

Quintana’s daughter, Catherine Quintana, elaborated to USA Today, saying, “If you’re coming to tell us normal news, that’s fine, but if you’re coming to tell us there’s no lung left and we want to put you on a morphine drip until you die, it should be done by a human being and not a machine.” 

Catherine identified some other complications that resulted from this particular implementation of telemedicine. Ernest was hard of hearing in one ear, and the robot could not maneuver over to the other side of the bed and speak into his good ear. As a result, Ernest couldn’t hear the robotic prognosis—so Catherine, aghast, had to relay the news herself. 

“We offer our sincere condolences,” said Kaiser-Permanente Senior Vice President Michelle Gaskill-Hames. “We use video technology as an appropriate enhancement to the care team, and a way to bring additional consultative expertise to the bedside. Our health care staff receive extensive training in the use of telemedicine, but video technology is not used as a replacement for in-person evaluations and conversations with patients…This is a highly unusual circumstance.” 

Why This Matters

The revolutionary advent of telemedicine—using digital tech to diagnose and/or treat patients remotely—represents an extraordinary advance in health care. It tackles grave problems arising from understaffed systems and precipitous physician workloads. But the notion of having intimate and difficult medical conversations with someone other than a flesh-and-blood HCP is understandably disheartening. As telemedicine grows increasingly widely adopted, delineating clear division of responsibilities between human and digital providers will help deliver appropriate care and comfort to patients in need. 

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.