The evidence of malnutrition is visual.
It is displayed under the eyes, and across the temples of sufferers. It is written along the contours of the mouth, across the fingernails, and on the skin.
Under the gaze of an expert dietician the muscle- and fat-wasting evident in these areas of the body show the severity of a case of malnutrition, and how best to treat it.
Unfortunately, such loss of body mass is a common side effect of patients undergoing treatment for cancer. To make matters worse, there are far more patients, in far more locations, than there are local certified experts to treat them.
A new strategy being developed in the Carolinas, however, is using video conferencing to extend the reach of expert nutritionists to aid oncology patients wherever they reside.
Telenutrition for Oncology Patients
The program has been launched by the Levine Cancer Institute, and pairs oncology-certified dieticians with local oncologists in regional areas to extend the specialized service to patients who couldn’t otherwise seek such nutritional advice without long, arduous car trips.
The program grew out of an existing remote telephone service, which let dieticians speak directly with patients, but critically left them relying on secondhand information from their peers and descriptions by the patient themselves to judge the extent and severity of weight loss.
Under the new telenutrition program, nutritionists can not only visually examine their patients, but guide an in-room doctor through a series of physical examinations. That doctor is also able to write prescriptions and aid a patient’s understanding of any new diet plan.
Though the program is currently restricted to only the highest risk cancer patients, the Levine team wants to expand their service beyond North and South Carolina, and with 65% of Americans suffering from diet-related chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, there’s a clear need to make professional dietary consultation easier for all in the U.S.
Crucially, the technology of video conferencing is catching up to the ambitions of the medical establishment, becoming more and more affordable and powerful with each new iteration.
4K Video Conferencing for Medical Treatment
It isn’t clear what kind of video conferencing equipment the Levine team uses to turn a cancer patient’s usual trip to the doctor into a cross-state virtual dietary planning session, but there’s little investment needed to access the highest grade of video calling.
The latest generation of ultra-high resolution cameras that can transmit images in 4K clarity are now available for around $400. At 4K you get an image with resolution that is 4x higher than what currently qualifies as full HD. Visuals that well defined comfortably replicate the detail discernible in an in-room consultation.
Now, it takes a higher-than-average broadband connection to let these new cameras really go to work, but commercial pressures are already boosting the performance of U.S. suppliers–Netflix’s 4K, one-way streaming service needs a minimum of about 20mbps of bandwidth all to itself, which puts it right at the limit of U.S. mobile connections, and takes up half the average fixed connection. Which is to say, if someone else in your house also wanted to stream a 4K movie you’d lose your connection.
Those are average speeds, however. Given time to level the playing field across the U.S., and to advance the rollout of new private networks, we’re hopeful that most people’s ISP should soon be able to deliver a certified dietician to their homes in fully functional 4K glory.
House Calls from Professional Dieticians
There are several stand-alone telenutrition apps and services currently available that can cover a wide range of user needs, but what the Levine practitioners envisage is a high-end service for at-risk patients that’s directly linked to wider disease treatment–oncology, in their particular case.
The ultimate extension of that goal is to reach patients at risk for malnutrition at home, where they live and eat.
Radically increasing the visuals of a standard video call into 4K territory should make it possible for a remote certified-dietician to conduct their own guided examination of a patient in a domestic location. Consultation over, it takes only a laptop with a mobile external webcam for the expert to be taken on a tour of a patient’s pantry and fridge to get a personal view of how they’re eating. They could even chat with their patient while a meal is prepared, offering in the moment advice on healthier ways to prepare food, or ways to sneak the right kinds of calories into whatever they’re making.
The link could even be switched to a smartphone and moved to the local supermarket–no need for 4K to tell a banana from an apple–and the patient could demonstrate their shopping habits in person, and in real time.
It lets a professional take their advice from the general to the personalized, and lets them take a more immersive role in their patient’s life. It may take only 30 minutes to chat with someone while they cook or shop, but the result could be the most intimate and revealing portrait of a patient any specialist could encounter.
Image Source: Flickr CC User Chris Dodson