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.