Healthcare as a vertical market encompasses perhaps more aspects of business and enterprise IT than virtually any other. With fields ranging from basic research to drug development to direct clinical care, IT takes on a whole new dimension in healthcare, where critical connections have life-and-death implications. Video conferencing is a particularly powerful tool for healthcare providers, enabling international research efforts, improved time to market for drugs and devices, consultation with international experts, improved patient care, and sophisticated telemedicine applications.
In healthcare, the usual advantages of video conferencing and telepresence all apply. Letting doctors avoid expensive and time-consuming travel to conferences and meetings is an obvious application. Doctors who aren’t traveling to international meetings while still being able to contribute to cutting edge research and engage in ongoing professional development are spending more time with patients. Public health officials can coordinate efforts on national and international scales without leaving their offices or universities. Medical students in developing countries can learn from experts at major universities even if they can’t afford to travel to the United States or Europe.
However, video conferencing in healthcare environments can provide more immediate advantages that extend far beyond cost savings and improved collaboration. First responders in an emergency can virtually bring doctors into the field where they can assess, guide, and advise on triage and medical procedures. Doctors in rural and other underserved areas or military field hospitals can take advantage of the expertise of subspecialists at the world’s top hospitals, again bringing doctors virtually to places where they would neither have the time nor opportunity to travel. Increasingly, doctors in remote areas are actually able to complete sophisticated procedures with more experienced physicians assisting virtually via video links. In fact, many of the same technologies and infrastructure improvements that enable high-quality video also allow true telemedicine and remote surgical procedures.
While the age of house calls is essentially over, video conferencing is making a new kind of house call possible as well. For example, homebound, elderly, or rural patients who might not otherwise be able to physically get to see a specialist can have at least initial consultations with doctors via tools like Skype or Microsoft Lync with even relatively slow Internet connections. Particularly in rural areas, even primary care physicians can dramatically increase the number of patients they can “see” through the use of Internet-based video conferencing and can do so very cost-effectively.
The availability of sophisticated consumer video over IP is a major driver of this trend, but enterprise-grade conferencing tools that take advantage of inexpensive IP video systems like those from LifeSize are also having a major impact. Gone are the days of grainy, unreliable video links or expensive telepresence systems; now, web-based systems delivering HD video connections to desktops, conference rooms, and mobile devices have suddenly made video conferencing a viable alternative in critical healthcare situations.
A growing focus on disaster preparedness, epidemiology, and public safety also means that funds are available to establish these sorts of systems, while the potential cost savings for researchers and non-clinical healthcare companies and service providers makes it easy to justify investments in video conferencing technologies.
Chris Dawson is a writer, speaker, and analyst with particular interests in educational technology, healthcare IT, and the intersection of the two with the cloud and BI. He is a contributing editor at ZDNet, Ziff Davis, and UBM Channel, and a senior editor at Edukwest. You can follow him on Twitter (@mrdatahs) and Google+ (+Christopher Dawson).