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Polycom® RealPresence® Video Solutions Helps University of Texas Medical Branch Bring Advanced Medical Care to South Pole Researchers

More than 1,400 U.S. scientists, researchers and support staff stationed around the South Pole spend their winters isolated by bitter cold, darkness, and thousands of miles. The weather is so extreme that aircraft cannot safely reach them for months, but Antarctic workers don’t have to wait for the brutal polar winter to end before they can be treated by a cardiologist, neurologist or other specialist, thanks to a telemedicine network 9,000 miles away that is operated by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and powered by video collaboration solutions from Polycom, Inc. (Nasdaq: PLCM), the global leader in open standards-based unified communications and collaboration (UC&C).

UTMB operates one of the world’s most extensive telemedicine networks, with 110,000 face-to-face patient consults and interactions a year. But its remote support of medical teams located at three U.S. research outposts in Antarctica – where winter is shrouded in six solid months of unbroken darkness and lows can reach 76 degrees below zero – underscores the unique value that telemedicine brings to people in remote, harsh, or dangerous locations.

“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.”

While Parazynski says serious medical emergencies at the polar stations are rare, the ability to speak face-to-face with a specialist, or consult a radiologist, or even have a surgeon walk an “ice doctor” through a procedure, ensures that care is available on-demand. 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. Other locations include: Amundsen-Scott South Pole (ASP) station, located at the geographic South Pole nearly 1,000 miles from McMurdo and serving 120 residents; and Palmer Station, which usually houses 40 people and only half that in winter. The telemedicine program also assists medical staff aboard two Antarctic research vessels.

A Life-Saving Service

When serious emergencies arise, access to specialist care can mean the difference between life and death. After a patient at McMurdo complained of heart attack symptoms, UTMB called in a cardiologist to remotely direct a cardiological ultrasound that was helpful in assessing the extent of the damage to the patient’s heart. 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.

Access to specialist expertise can make a profound difference in health outcomes, particularly when every minute counts and transporting patients is not an option. In stroke cases, for instance, the sooner neurologists can evaluate a patient via telepresence, the faster they can determine if treating the stroke with clot-busting drugs like Tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA) will minimize damage to the patient’s brain. In 2011, in fact, a station manager at ASP suffered a stroke, and neurologists at UTMB relied on the telemedicine network powered by Polycom RealPresence video solutions to determine if a daring winter evacuation would be needed to save her life.

The closed environment of a polar station in winter presents other problems. A flu outbreak – like the one that hit McMurdo in 2007 and 2008 – can prove devastating to operations, and this makes access to virologists essential. And six months of darkness can take a psychological toll, triggering depression and an increase in cases of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). “Especially in winter, SAD is a real problem,” said Parazynski. “You’ve got 24 hours of night for months at a time, so little things that could be shrugged off in a normal environment become big as mountains. We’ve got a fairly active peer counseling network down there, but there are occasions when we use psychology colleagues to help with these issues.”

Relying on Polycom® RealPresence® Video Solutions to Deliver Care

Galveston, Texas, where UTMB is located, is nearly 9,000 miles from the South Pole. For telemedicine to result in effective, efficient care, UTMB physicians must be 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. “With Polycom RealPresence video solutions, we’re able to share very clear video in an extremely challenging environment.”

Not surprisingly, network connectivity in Antarctica is limited. “The issue down on the ice is bandwidth, but it’s greatly improved over what we had when we first started,” said Black, who keeps a videotape of the first telemedicine transmission from Antarctica – a grainy, jittery, black-and-white videoconference that reveals how far the program has come. “We didn’t even have enough bandwidth for color back then,” he added. “What we have today with Polycom is truly excellent video quality.”

Black’s team manages calls with the Polycom® RMX® 2000 real-time media conference system – part of the Polycom RealPresence Platform –, which powers all of UTMB’s vast telemedicine network. In the future, said Black, the program may equip even more remote polar locations and field camps with mobile devices that use the award-winning Polycom® RealPresence® Mobile application. “You can have over 100 people living in tents in the wilds of Antarctica. There are no doctors out there, but the larger camps might have a paramedic and a nurse practitioner. It would be very helpful to be able to deliver telemedicine consults and care to those people whenever they need it.”

About Polycom

Polycom is the global leader in open standards-based unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) solutions for voice and video collaboration, trusted by more than 415,000 customers around the world. Polycom solutions are powered by the Polycom® RealPresence® Platform, comprehensive software infrastructure and rich APIs that interoperate with the broadest set of communication, business, mobile and cloud applications and devices to deliver secure face-to-face video collaboration in any environment. Polycom and its ecosystem of over 7,000 partners provide truly unified communications solutions that deliver the best user experience, highest multi-vendor interoperability, and lowest TCO. Visit or connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to learn how we’re pushing the greatness of human collaboration forward.

© 2012 Polycom, Inc. All rights reserved. POLYCOM®, the Polycom logo, and the names and marks associated with Polycom’s products are trademarks and/or service marks of Polycom, Inc. and are registered and/or common law marks in the United States and various other countries. All other trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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