You probably won’t know it when it happens, but in the future an iPad could save your life.
You won’t know it because you’ll be in the back of an ambulance, maybe unconscious, hazy, or in pain. But beside you, an EMT or paramedic will be tapping away at a tablet, relaying sights, sounds, and vital signs, and describing the situation as the vehicle speeds you toward an emergency room.
And they’ll be speaking directly to a medical specialist, who can, using the EMT’s two-way video calling tablet, diagnose you as if you were lying in front of them on a hospital bed. By the time you arrive at the hospital your treatment will be ready and waiting, with the staff all set to go with whatever equipment or setup they need.
It’s not a big leap to imagine this possibility, because in part it is happening already. It’s the future of emergency medicine, and it’s joining other important uses of video conferencing in healthcare like video conferencing for doctors, telehealth physical therapy, and online treatment for addiction. Here’s how it works.
In-Ambulance Emergency Calls
There are seven ambulances already equipped with emergency tablet technology rolling around the streets of Peterborough in central England, just north of Cambridge. The small fleet is part of an advanced TeleStroke service that links ambulance officers (the UK’s version of paramedics) with expert neurologists at the town’s Catholic Medical Centre.
Within minutes of an ambulance arriving at the side of a patient suspected to be suffering from a stroke, the emergency responders can open a video call to get an expert pair of eyes on the situation. Short of taking a neurologist along for the ride every time someone calls 911 (in Britain, 999), it is impossible to begin treatment any sooner.
That’s the point, because every minute counts when dealing with stroke. In the case of ischemic stroke, where blood clots form in the brain, the patient loses two million neurons and seven miles of nerve fibers every 60 seconds. Their chances of making a full recovery soar if they are administered clot-busting treatment as soon as possible. But to do, the patient first has to be correctly diagnosed.
The idea is potentially lifesaving, but the technology behind it is more a case of application than innovation.
The iPad As an Emergency Medicine Portal
The Peterborough initiative is among the first in operation anywhere in the world, although the concept has been trialed in the U.S. In fact, the University of Virginia has been experimenting with the system for the past few years.
Their iTreat model works the same way as the British version, with a regular iPad tablet hooked up to a high-speed wireless modem and some magnetic antennas on the roof of the ambulance. Back at the hospital, there’s a video calling app in operation that works much the same way as your Skype connection–leave the app open in the background of your computer, click ‘answer’ when it starts ringing.
It sounds simple because we’ve become so used to mobile video calling and near-saturation wifi coverage. And it’s that ubiquity of service, and our comfort with video calling technology, that could profoundly change the way we react in a crisis.
The Future of Emergency Medicine: Looking Ahead
Israel has taken the first big step in turning our familiarity with video calling into a tool for emergency medicine. In 2016, it became the first country to offer its citizens nationwide emergency video calling and chat. Again, it is more about application than technological innovation, as the system works just like a social video calling app, but is connected to the county’s existing emergency response system. And it incorporates not just tablets, but also smartphones.
Blending that concept with the TeleStroke example would create a 911 service in which a caller would be greeted face-to-face by an emergency operator and then potentially transferred directly to a medical specialist. That specialist could use video calling to take an initial look at the situation and give advice on what to do right away until the ambulance arrives. It could be as simple as applying pressure to a secondary wound that a panicked caller might not have noticed or thought about in the chaos of the moment.
In fact, the call could be expanded to include the paramedics on their way in the ambulance so they would know what to expect the minute they park. 911 dispatchers already contact the ambulance on its way to a situation to give them details as they get them from the patient, but video could be a huge help in preparing paramedics and EMTs for what they’re about to be dealing with. Once they arrive, the triage nurse at the local emergency room could be brought onto the call, so they, in turn, can get ready for the incoming patient.
Video calling-equipped ambulance and 911 services have the potential to turn every person in the U.S. into a first responder, operating under the guidance of an expert. It creates a seamless link between patient, ambulance, emergency room, and medical specialist. And it requires no further advance in video calling technology–just an expansion of the existing emergency response network.
One day you could wake up in a hospital ward owing a debt of thanks to a stranger who just happened to be passing by when disaster struck, phone in hand.