Telepresence creates virtual specialists

Two NSW hospitals have launched the first healthcare system based on telepresence technology, allowing specialists to remotely examine patients 60km away via fibre optic Internet links.

From mid-December, specialists at Nepean Hospital in Sydney will see and hear patients - in real time - plus data on their vital signs, who are at the emergency department of Blue Mountains District ANZAC Memorial Hospital.

Blue Mountains Hospital patients are often evacuated to Nepean Hospital for specialist advice, but the Virtual Critical Care Unit (VCCU) project aims to address the problem of recruiting expert medical staff to remote areas.

The two-year project has $1.2 million in funding from the NSW government, and was developed by the Wentworth Area Health Service and CSIRO.

Dr Laurie Wilson, convenor CeNTIE tele-health focus group, said the second generation broadband technology used with broadcast-quality video was better than similar health systems in Australia.

"This has been done in the past with lower quality bandwidth and video. But this is the first time it's been set up as a permanent link, there are no technicians required to keep it going."

The VCCU contains a trolley with two PCs, a microphone for voice communication, and cameras for views of the patient and vital signs data, connected via Gigabit Ethernet.

"We leased fibre-optic lines [between the two hospitals] from the State Rail Infrastructure Corporation, cause it just uses it for security cameras etc. In the hospital we use the conventional copper network," Dr Wilson said.

"At Nepean, the specialist has three monitors offering different views: a ceiling-mounted camera, a head-mounted camera [on the Blue Mountains doctor], and vital signs information, which might be X-rays or ultrasound."

The head-mounted camera was part of the project's goal to recreate the examination experience, Dr Wilson said.

"With the head-mounted camera, you can see close-ups, and the doctor at Nepean can get the same experience as the other doctor, which is very important for the diagnosis."

He said a common example of the VCCU's function would be trauma specialists at Nepean making decisions about the treatment of road accident victims.

The VCCU was installed three weeks ago, and Dr Wilson said Blue Mountains hospital staff were in training and testing the unit for the first patient to elect to use the technology in December.

The hospital will have a second VCCU by early next year in the obstetrics department, Dr Wilson said.

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