During a tense, pressure-packed, potentially life-saving heart operation two surgeons have a conversation. One is offering advice to the other on a particularly complex procedure. While the operating surgeon is intimately linked to the one giving advice they are also free to move unencumbered around the small operating room. That’s because this operation is being observed via video conference. It’s telesurgery, and the observing surgeon is miles away in their office, unscrubbed and watching on their computer screen.
Such is the everyday reality of a group of surgeons operating out of Abington Hospital – Jefferson Health, Pennsylvania. They’ve turned the same technology you and I use to make a video call to our friends into a vital asset in the operating room.
Teaming Up Over Telesurgery
The Abington team is led by cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mauricio Garrido, who set up the video conferencing link with an eye to connecting with other experts in his field. Now it’s also being used to prevent family members from having to wait blindly for the results of an operation.
The operating room is equipped with a high-definition webcam and screen which are connected to video conferencing software. The camera gives remote doctors a live view of the surgery in progress, while up-to-the-minute updates of the operation’s progress and the patient’s status are also passed on to nurses and family members waiting outside.
The connection means Dr. Garrido and his team can receive live, in-the-moment advice from remote colleagues who’ve performed similar operations or those with greater knowledge of the patient and their unique condition.
The Pennsylvania set-up is one of several in operation around the country. If these digital pioneers are successful in proving the usefulness of this system, the technology is affordable and accessible enough to become commonplace in hospitals all over. That could prove a major asset to remote and regional communities.
Virtual Patient Transport
VC Daily has long argued that video conferencing could be used to create digital hubs of medical experts who could extend their unique insights to hospitals, clinics, and primary care doctors’ offices around the country.
Video conferencing vendor Vidyo, for example, has created a centralized intensive care hub that lets remote critical care doctors and nurses use video conferencing to monitor patients across 15 hospitals across four states. Also, a University of New Mexico program to video link regional doctors with thousands of experts across the state has won Senate support to expand its program, effectively upskilling small-town health professionals.
Dr. Garrido’s set-up takes that kind of network to the next level. His example could be followed in emergency rooms across the country, giving generalist trauma surgeons expert guidance to be able to perform more complicated and varied surgeries.
This program has the potential to reduce the need for expensive and dangerous patient transport from outlying areas to major hospitals. Provided the local hospital has an adequate operating room and qualified staff, the surgeon on hand could be guided in real-time by a remote expert that the patient might otherwise have to be flown to.
These kinds of remote emergency procedures are already being staged by military and humanitarian doctors across international borders.
Telesurgery in Disaster Zones
Doctors from the U.S. are already using video conferencing to supervise the work of surgeons in war-torn areas. Doctors in Syria, for example, are in regular contact with their peers in the states as they go about their life-saving work under adverse conditions. From their offices in the U.S., the American doctors can use video calling to supervise surgeries, view x-rays, review lab results, and help diagnose patients.
The same sort of video conferencing operation has also been used to provide assistance to humanitarian workers at the sites of natural disasters. An example of this is the University of Miami’s program to help earthquake victims in Haiti.
In each of these cases, video conferencing allows medical experts to get where they’re urgently needed without the expense and delay of travel or the fear of danger on the ground. The above examples show that the high-definition visuals of today’s webcams are able to faithfully reproduce live surgery in enough detail to make remote supervision viable, and cost very little. Even the emerging ultra-high definition 4K webcams only cost around $200, next to nothing for a high-tech piece of medical equipment.
The technology is here, the medical will is here, and the cost is minimal: we think it won’t be long until remote telesurgery becomes common across the country.