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New Years Resolutions - Video Conferencing and Training

January 5, 2010
by Joe Bormel
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New Years Resolution
How will YOU use video conferencing in 2010?

2009 saw a 50% increase in number of concurrent users of the popular video conferencing service called Skype. If my 'friends" sampling is an accurate indication, the growth is mostly due to families connecting over the miles. Daughters going off to college is a common triggering event, even though moms mostly get to watch their daughters text to others, while the daughter is video conferencing with mom! Unquestionably, kids and young adults view video conferencing as routine and have for several years now.

The business volume growth (including medical) in 2009 was less, but nevertheless quite notable. Our HR department started doing some screening interviews with a video conferencing service. This has been terrifically cost and time saving for all parties involved and welcomed by both. Of course, there is no substitute for physically being there. But as the world becomes more global, virtual, fragmented, and connected in new ways, video conferencing is an important tool for appropriate classes of work. Just like any tool.

Several healthcare-specific potential roles for video conferencing are nicely elaborated here. Cisco describes telepresence and connects it with several concepts, employer-based care delivery models, Medical Home, and the office visit of the future (essentially telemedicine). The vision and discussion of implications is an important one for all of us HCIT enablers. At times, our role is to be part of the 12-step program for a healthcare system addicted to dysfunctional behaviors!

My personal experience with Skype video conferencing is worth a sentence or two. I coordinated a conference track at AMIA this past year, staying connected to the chair who lives in Connecticut and works in NYC via video conferencing. It's been mutually therapeutic to connect with this friend when physically getting together was logically impossible. We got a lot of productive work done using video, which we followed up in email.

There is similar work-combined-with-relationship development that has occurred with friends in Toronto, Massachusetts, Colorado, California, Oregon, Connecticut, North Carolina, etc. The conversation quality is clearly better with video conferencing than mobile phone to mobile phone (which has become the standard). Perhaps one of my 2010 resolutions should be to Skype with a client, fellow-employee, or friend from every state or country I deal with?

Santa is using video conferencing (photo courtesy of Cisco)

I'd like to close by sharing what I've learned in 2009, and welcome your experience as well.

1. The technology works and is readily available:

- Free: one of the applications/services for computer to computer video conferencing is free, if you have a modern laptop or a desktop with a camera and microphone.

- Inexpensive-way to start: although inexpensive netbooks work great for video conferencing, the quality is typically only acceptable. Images are low resolution and motion isn’t smooth. I brought my mom into video conferencing last year for $300.

- Camera: switching from a cheap Web cam (like the internal ones in some netbooks) to a ~$100, auto-focus, 2+ megapixel Web cam makes a huge difference. Much better image, which improves the experience.

- Internet Connection:
- Remarkably, free, public access WiFi is often enough.
- We have Verizon FiOS (fiber-optic Internet service), and we're paying for an upgrade to service faster than 5 MBs.
- Dropped calls: Some calls drop frequently. Sometimes related to time-of-day. Sometimes related to distance. And often related to other concurrent network uses, such as VoIP. If you start with an expectation that you may need to reconnect every 15-20 minutes, and you may occasionally need to switch to voice, you'll likely be pleasantly surprised when video conferencing works for several hours at a time perfectly. If you expect it to be perfect quality of service, you'll be very disappointed at some point.

- Computer: running on a reasonably recent multi-core, fast computer also makes a difference (even in addition to the better camera point above). I've been able to vary camera, connection and computer, and have seen that great results can be achieved. Two days ago, for example, I was Skyping with a friend in San Diego from Washington, DC. We both had fairly optimal settings. The call quality was pretty much at a high def TV standard, in terms of picture quality and frame rate (picture smoothness with motion). It's amazing to see someone roll their eyes and smile; no words can communicate a point as efficiently and effectively.

2. Fitting video conferencing into self-management, including time management, social networking, and task management is new to everyone. I don't, for example, leave myself in an online status when I'm not using video conferencing. I don’t want the interruption. And many employees don’t want to enter using VC. See #4. As is the case with every other communication medium, like phone or email, there's a moderate amount of sophistication involved in choosing and using the right method in any context.

3. Lighting - generally, we’ve all set up our computers such that our faces are not illuminated. Using VC most effectively is improved with appropriate placement of a simple desk lamp. Also, attention to back lighting is sometimes essential. In English, draw the blinds on the window behind you.

4. Who will play, who won’t …

- Employees: who multi-task during frequent teleconference calls hate the idea of video conferencing. They want to be able to do other things and not be seen. VC is a face-to-face experience. You cannot get away with absent presence, with having your head down to the blackberry or iPhone in your lap, or the unrelated email. These employees won’t go near video conferencing because of this effective accountability.

- "Dress Code:" video conferencing is often paired with working from a home office. This location, as we all know, is associated with zero grooming and a very relaxed dress code, and has been used by some as a reason to eschew VC. That shouldn’t be the driver to preclude experimenting with video conferencing. This is a big issue for some.

5. Multi-way video conferencing is available (e.g. Apple iChat, and various Web services). This can gobble up network bandwidth and computer resources, but both are improving every year.

6. The shared desktop - It's extremely easy to switch from sharing video to all or part of your screen. This makes it possible and easy, for example, to present a Powerpoint or an application demonstration and concurrently see the reactions of the receiver. Last year at HIMSS, I was able to do private demonstrations for people who were not able to attend.

Are you using video conferencing? Where have you found that it creates value? Should you be increasing your video conferencing experimentation in 2010?

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