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Roll the Video

January 1, 2007
by Joe D'lorio
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Videoconferencing can get rural patients the specialist treatment they need.

Let's say your healthcare organization serves a large rural area with several scattered clinics and you want to give patients faster and more effective treatment. Perhaps you're eager to link your hospital to treatment specialists located miles, even continents, away to advise on particular issues, or maybe you want your emergency room to have ready-access to a noted stroke center located elsewhere.

If any of these scenarios is true, you just might want to consider employing the latest telehealth technology, better known as videoconferencing.

Gone are the days of poor audio and video and frequent service interruptions. Significant advances in video communication can now deliver vivid, clear video and distinct, high-quality audio.

So, while no technology can substitute completely for an in-person exam of a patient or a specimen, many medical personnel report that with the latest video communication technology, it's practically like being in the same room with a specialist who in reality may be thousands of miles away.

A growing number of healthcare organizations are embracing telehealth to help ease the shortage of medical specialists, particularly in remote or rural areas, to link non-English-speaking patients with translators, and to help train personnel. Today, video communication technology connects patients with physicians and medical specialists anywhere, anytime.

In France, 10 hospitals use a videoconferencing network to link their emergency rooms to the Bichat Stroke Center in Paris. Since every minute counts after a stroke, the video connection helps victims get faster and more effective treatment. At Emirates Hospital in the United Arab Emirates, telehealth links patients and doctors in Dubai with specialists at affiliated medical centers on three continents.

In Arizona, a telemedicine program allows 12 medical sites to provide rural patients an affordable alternative to travel if they need to see a specialist.

And, in Hawaii, video telephony enables many women on remote islands who once had no direct access to a specialist to get the next best thing to first-hand treatment. Using videoconferencing, Hawaii Pacific Health (HPH), the only tertiary-level hospital for women and children in the Pacific Basin, connects women with ultrasound machines in 10 medical sites on four islands.

Obstetricians who specialize in high-risk pregnancies can "see" a fetus remotely using video monitors located within the HPH Fetal Diagnostic Center. Perinatologists then provide around-the-clock advice and care to patients, as well as consult with the local obstetrician, radiologist and sonographer.

Getting started

Prices for telemedicine systems vary considerably depending on the specific services and technology required. Each telehealth application is unique, so the components one healthcare organization may require for its system undoubtedly will vary. Depending on the need, numerous medical and non-medical peripheral devices can be connected to the video systems, including special cameras and scopes. With dermatology problems or for ear, nose and throat exams, for example, high-resolution cameras and medical scopes allow for real-time video images. A common user interface simplifies use and minimizes necessary user training.

And a platform that combines the video screen, keyboard and software to communicate while miles apart can provide enhanced visual and digital-quality audio for accurate patient assessment. What's also essential today is technology that integrates seamlessly with existing business tools, such as Microsoft Office Communicator, Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. Of course, a video system must also deliver the highest level of security, including encryption and authentication to ensure patient confidentiality while satisfying federal HIPAA requirements for open and dial-in networks.

Ease of use

The common user interface on today's telehealth systems makes it simple to understand and use, while also minimizing the time necessary for employee training. Indeed, the typical healthcare employee using the system doesn't have to understand such terms as bandwidth or LCD and finds it simple to connect laptops, cameras and other peripherals to the videoconferencing equipment. This easy-to-use technology ensures that healthcare practitioners are doing what they do best — treating patients.

Patients don't seem to mind the use of this technology and that's critical since to succeed, video communication systems must satisfy patients as well as medical providers. A survey by the Arizona Telemedicine Program, a virtual rural medical community, found that all of its patients expressed great satisfaction with videoconferencing.

While it may not match having a bedside physician examine a patient, video communication does deliver universal access to medical care anytime, anywhere — and that's definitely good for our health.

Author Information:

Joe D'Iorio is manager, telehealth, for Tandberg NA, New York.