There are some 1,400 U.S. scientists, researchers and support staff stationed around the South Pole. They spend their winters isolated in darkness, staving off the bitter cold. Aircraft cannot safely reach them for months, leaving Antarctic workers to wait for the brutal polar winter to end before cardiologists, neurologists or other specialists can treat them.
A recent announcement from Polycom, Inc. suggests new technology could literally save lives by connecting physicians in Texas to patients 9,000 miles away in Antarctica.
The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston operates the network. The technology is powered by Polycom, Inc. — a leader in open standards-based unified communications and collaborations. That's a fancy way of saying they're into more than just boring office conference calls or Skype chats.
"Our specialists help provide the second tier of care that's difficult or impossible for 'doctors on ice' to handle themselves," said Dr. Scott Parazynski, director and chief medical officer of UTMB's Center for Polar Medical Operations, which has provided telemedicine services to polar stations since 2003.
"It's incredibly expensive to transport a person to or from the continent, and in the middle of winter it's physically impossible to get people off of the South Pole. So if you can remotely diagnose and treat the patient, and then supervise his or her care, you're much better off."
At McMurdo Station, the largest polar outpost that houses more than 1,200 people and a hospital staffed by multiple physicians, nurses and aides, UTMB specialists routinely see 35 to 40 patients a week via "teleconsultation."
It can mean the difference between life and death. Last August — in the middle of the polar winter — UTMB's anesthesiology department played a crucial role in an emergency appendectomy surgery that saved a patient's life.
"We're not set up to do general anesthesia and surgery, but this was a notable exception. We were lucky to have a surgeon there, and to be able to direct the anesthesia over the Polycom video system. It was pretty remarkable," said Parazynski.
And it only works if the surgeons and specialist are able to see and hear patients with crystal clarity.
"The better the video resolution and the clearer the audio, the greater the likelihood that our experts back in Galveston can pick up on subtleties that grainy video wouldn't highlight," said Oliver Black, systems analyst services manager at UTMB.