PHOENIX — A new member of Northern Arizona University’s football team stands only 4 feet tall and has yet to see a minute of playing time.
That addition just happens to be a telecommunication robot named V-Go, which is remotely controlled by a neurologist at Mayo Clinic to assess players who have suffered, or are suspected of suffering, a concussion.
“What it does essentially is provide an instantaneous audio-visual link between their medical staff and their players and us any time they need it,” said Dr. Bert Vargas, a Mayo Clinic neurologist in charge of the robot’s research.
Via computer or iPad about 140 miles away, a neurologist directs V-Go’s movements, as well as the tilting and zooming of the camera that sits atop its spherical head. Inches below, a screen and speakers allow for direct communication.
The Lumberjacks use V-Go, which costs about $5,000, on the sidelines during games and in the training room after games and during practice.
Dr. George Hershey, who’s been NAU’s team physician for 43 years, said the robot provides another opinion and reinterpretation when assessing and treating players with concussions.
“I am ecstatic about working with (Mayo Clinic) because I have reinforcements about things I’ve felt for years,” Hershey said. “It’s just an added tool for us to use to convince the athletes and the coaches that that athlete isn’t returning to play until we feel that they’re absolutely well.”
Team protocol calls for a player with concussion symptoms to sit out of practices and games for a week, Hershey said.
On the seventh day, the player is put through a 30-45 minute workout. If symptoms return, the player must sit out for another week, he said.
Hershey said that coaches complain about the harshness of the rule, but he’s more concerned with a player’s health 20-30 years down the road.
“It’s the symptom that is the hallmark of getting that kid out of action,” he said.
The team has seen two players suffer concussions so far this season, Hershey said. One of the players didn’t notice symptoms until he woke up the next morning, after which the robot was used throughout the week to assess him, he added.
Every player also underwent Mayo Clinic’s baseline testing at the beginning of the season so that any discrepancy could be easily detected, Hershey said.
Vargas said that the V-Go neurologists have successfully demonstrated that they can pick up abnormalities and identify when someone needs to come out of the game. The next step remains determining if and when it’s safe for a player to return, he said.
“Before we feel comfortable rolling this out as a service line, we would want to know that we can also identify those who are healthy,” Vargas said.
To further detect concussions during games, the neurologist controlling V-Go also watches a game broadcast, Vargas said.
“That’s based on a hypothesis that sometimes things are visible to the viewers (or) to the broadcast audience that are not immediately visible to people on the sidelines, either through the fact that they have a pretty restricted field of view or through the fact that team physicians and athletic trainers are busy,” he said.
Similar robots have been used by Mayo Clinic to remotely consult with stroke patients in rural hospitals since 2007, Vargas said.
The future of V-Go’s technology would be to care for high school and youth football players, Vargas said. About 60 percent of high schools in the country don’t have an athletic trainer or any type of medical presence at football games, he said.
Vargas said that while he believes NAU is the only NCAA team with a neurologist at all football games, he sees that changing soon. After all, the NFL started requiring independent concussion specialists on each team’s sidelines this season and NFL issues trickle down quickly to the college level, he said.
“It’s only a matter of time before some of the changes the NFL has implemented are incorporated into the NCAA,” Vargas said. “I imagine that sideline neuro-trauma experts are going to be one of those changes.”