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The Robotic Concussion Protocol is Coming for Small Town Football

High school football is one of America’s favorite pastimes; taking kids to the hospital for a concussion is not. And yet children under age 15 account for the most traumatic brain injury visits to the emergency room. Small towns, in particular, have to deal with a culture where youth football means more, but rural stadiums often further away from much needed medical care. New research out of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center seeks to solve such issues with doctor-operated, telemedical robots that assess head injuries in real time on the field. Think Friday Night Lights meets iRobot.

The study, published in Neurology, followed a mobile robot that was stationed for two seasons on the sideline and athletic training room of Northern Arizona University’s football games. The robot, made by VGo, is controlled remotely and features a two-way camera through which an off-site doctor can beam in and assess an injury. Via the robot, a neurologist was able to view the game and check out players who may have been concussed. Researchers stationed another doctor on the sideline to perform face-to-face evaluations as well. At season’s end, they compared notes from 11 potential concussion cases. Doctors were in agreement 100 percent of the time. In fact, there was only a three-second gap in decision-making time between robot and regular doc.

According to Dr. Bert Vargas, lead author of the study, not having either puts young athletes “in a position to have a more severe injury with prolonged symptoms and longer recovery time.” The research is meant to provide preliminary data to push youth programs to utilize teleconcussion equipment when neurologists and other brain-trauma specialists aren’t immediately available.

The recent study isn’t the first to enlist robots to help examine head injuries in kids, but it does help further prove the worth of telemedical robots — and promotes awareness of the severity of concussions. Hopefully, it also raises awareness of the fact that football just isn’t good for growing brains, no matter how much it means to a town’s Friday night. It might take more than clear eyes, full hearts, and robot doctors to win that one.

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