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Airline readies remote telemedicine tools
(IDG) -- Sudden chest pains can be alarming, but when they occur in an airliner cruising at 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, they can lead to panic -- or worse.
In what Chairman Richard Branson is calling a "major breakthrough," Virgin Atlantic Airways is about to install throughout its fleet of aircraft remote diagnostic systems that will allow physicians on the ground to remotely monitor the vital signs of stricken passengers. The doctors will then be able to communicate with flight personnel on how to treat patients.
Telemedicine experts agree that the British airline's plans mark a dramatic advance in telemedicine services by commercial airlines.
Even though NASA has used similar systems to monitor astronauts, "I can't say I have heard of anything else like this" for use by airlines, said Mike LaPolla, director of the telemedicine center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa.
Besides providing dramatically improved medical services to sick passengers, the system is expected to aid Virgin Atlantic's bottom line. "Standard procedures in the past for any [airborne] medical emergency was to divert to the closest airport . . . which costs an airline literally millions of dollars a year," said Richard Satava, professor of surgery at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.
Graham Murphy is managing director of Remote Diagnostic Technologies in Fairleigh Wallop, England, which developed the computerized Tempus 2000 remote monitoring device Virgin Atlantic plans to deploy in February. Murphy said the system will automatically relay a passenger's vital signs to emergency room physicians at a facility operated by MedAire, a Phoenix company that has provided voice telemedicine services to airlines for 16 years.
The Tempus 2000 sends real-time electrocardiogram information, temperature (via an ear probe), blood pressure information (via a wrist cuff) and other vital signs, including blood oxygen levels and respiration rates, to computers at MedAire's MedLink facility at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix using a built-in modem connected to a seat-back satellite phone.
Although the satellite connection operates at only 2.4K bit/sec. -- or roughly the speed of a standard dial-up PC modem a decade ago -- Murphy said compression protocols developed by Remote Diagnostic Technologies allow for the transmission of a still video picture in only 30 seconds.
The Tempus 2000 features graphical help screens that guide flight personnel through every step of the setup process. Virgin Atlantic is currently training 650 flight attendants to use the system.
If a doctor determines that the medical condition of an onboard patient necessitates an emergency landing, the company's communications specialists can tap into a proprietary SQL database of 5,000 hospitals worldwide -- correlated with an airport database -- to determine the closest airport with the best medical facilities to treat the passenger.
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