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Software-based video conferencing connects British hospitals

A hospital cancer network in the U.K. is using software-based video conferencing from IOCOM to allow doctors to meet virtually and collaborate with diagnostic images.

In London, a network of 11 hospitals maintains a multidisciplinary team that consults on the assessment and treatment of cancer patients. But efficiently assembling this team was a challenge. When the United Kingdom's National Health Service (NHS) mandated that these teams use video to collaborate, the hospitals selected a software-based video-conferencing product to connect them.

Some of the hospitals had video-conferencing technology in place already, but the systems were heterogeneous and didn't fit the needs of the multidisciplinary teams (MDTs), according to Alan Lowe, West London Cancer Network's project manager.

"I represented 11 hospitals," Lowe said. "Some had nothing at all; some were using Polycom systems and some were using Tandberg. All of them went over an ISDN. I went to all the different hospitals, and they were all unhappy with them."

Video-conferencing sessions were difficult to set up, he said, and the ISDN network was unreliable. There was also a lack of flexibility in the hardware-based products the hospitals had in place.

Lowe said the cancer network needed a video technology that would allow users to collaborate with multiple streams of diagnostic images simultaneously. The technologies the individual hospitals had in place only allowed face-to-face communication with a single video stream for a presentation feed.

"Polycom and Tandberg were designed specifically for business meetings -- face to face, with one PowerPoint presentation," Lowe said. "With an MDT meeting, you've got a number of diagnostic images. So you've got the person in the meeting, their camera view, and you've got the patient's electronic X-rays and CT scans demonstrated. Plus you've got the clinical patient record on the screen, and you have maybe a microscopic image of his blood. So you're looking at three or four images per patient, and you might have people from seven different hospitals in the meeting."

Lowe issued a request for proposals from resellers on the market. He received 20 official responses, and 19 were from resellers offering a combination of Polycom and Tandberg hardware. The final proposal was from IOCOM, a provider of software-based video-conferencing technology.

IOCOM's software-based approach is built around the company's Unified Collaboration Server, a central server that manages video communication and collaboration for desktop and room-based users across enterprise locations.

Lowe selected IOCOM's software for the implementation. The reseller, which he declined to name, used third-party hardware to set up about 15 video-conferencing rooms and about 20 desktop licenses.

Each room set-up has multiple plasma screens, projectors and cameras that are controlled by a local desktop computer. The video streams run across the National Health Service's own private network, the N3 network.

"IOCOM allows doctors to have a complete overview of all the patient's diagnostics without having to transfer between each image," Lowe said. "The other advantage is that it's software-based. So you don't need an expert to run the meetings. You just need someone who's used to running Windows. It's a standard Windows application. Another key factor is [that] physicians who couldn't get to a video-conferencing room … could come into a meeting via a desktop."

Lowe said that interacting with the system is similar to interacting with a Windows desktop. Each video feed and diagnostic image feed can run in an independent window displayed on plasma screens or a projected image in a room-based system. Doctors can use the local PC to make each image as large or small as they want. They can also change the resolution of the images and the audio volume of each separate feed. Lowe said the IOCOM system offered flexibility that he didn't see from other vendors.

"In Polycom, you've got these three screens and you can literally only have those three screens," he said. "There are things you can do to split the signal, but that's just not the same. With IOCOM, you're not restricted by your screen. You can have one plasma screen with eight or nine images. It's about having those images ready seamlessly when you want them, and you're not spending time switching between two or three images."

"It's changed the way people think about the possibilities with video conferencing," Lowe said.

For instance, a software-based system that allows users to video conference from a desktop offers some unique opportunities. The hospitals are considering a phase 2 project that would allow patients themselves to use the IOCOM video-conferencing technology from home. Patients who don't require face-to-face examination would be able to meet with their doctors via home computers and look at the diagnostic images the doctors are using.

"I'm looking at security and testing for that," Lowe said. "And we're looking at remote access for staff from home, so if there is a critical emergency and they want to get more expertise from home, we can ping them at home and show them a scan or show them a photo as if they were there."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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