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Immediate Help from a Distance
August 29, 2014   
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Computer scientists from the AGH University of Science and Technology in the southern Polish city of Cracow have created an information technology system that enables patients to instantly consult their doctors and doctors to exchange opinions during brainstorming sessions in virtual reality. The system, called TeleDICOM, has already helped save lives, the scientists say.

The system enables fast transfer of medical imaging data between hospitals using special software. Doctors can securely exchange information about patients and their conditions, instantly convene case conferences involving clinics in different cities, and come up with joint diagnoses. Medical imaging data coming from, for example, computed tomography, angiography or ultrasound procedures is analyzed at the same time in a number of medical centers and commented on by experts.

The idea as well as the technology and the prototype of the system all originated at the AGH University of Science and Technology. Several years ago, Prof. Krzysztof Zieliński, head of the university’s computer science department, aided by his associates, founded a company—called T-MedSys—to put the system to use in medical practice and provide services to customers.

Going commercial with an invention is a business project that involves the need to ensure sales, customer service and product upgrades. All this interferes with the basic goals of an institution of higher education, whose main focus is education and research. Consequently, the best option is to have a separate company take care of the business side of a project. The company’s customers will then inspire the inventors to make improvements or undertake new projects, and the company’s staff will handle all the necessary commercial and marketing activities for the researchers.

Working for a spin-off company does not pose an excessive burden on a scientist professionally. Instead it enables them to earn some extra money while continuing to work on their scientific pursuits.

The T-MedSys company has six employees. Some of them ensure the proper operation of the software in a logistics, software support role. Zieliński’s team is also working to upgrade the software. The university has retained the intellectual property rights to the invention.

“Increasingly, the problem is not just conducting a study, but finding an expert to offer a diagnosis based on the image,” says Zieliński. “Although tomography may soon be available in every hospital, it is not everywhere that staff will be qualified enough to interpret complex cases. In such situations, the possibility of transferring data and direct consultation is invaluable.”

In the past, medical test results had to be physically delivered to specialized doctors, and it was also necessary to bring in experts in person to consult specific cases or transport patients for consultations by doctors. Today doctors find it much easier to work with other medical centers and they can even work from home, providing consultations and analyzing medical data and participating in case conferences.

“A quick decision by a doctor has often helped save a patient’s life. A total of 7,000-8,000 consultations have been conducted using our software,” says Zieliński. “This number includes critical cases. In cardiology and cardiac surgery a decision must be made within minutes, hours at the latest, because otherwise the patient’s life is at risk.”

The TeleDICOM system is at work in about 40 hospitals across Poland, including heart clinics. Hospitals without specialized cardiac wards can use the system to obtain immediate support from experts.

But the TeleDICOM system is not only for cardiac patients. It is also used in the diagnosis of some rare diseases that occur once in several thousand cases. In such cases, there are no set routine treatment procedures; sometimes global case conferences are needed. Hospitals from Cracow regularly take part in such international projects.

The system has many other advantages. If the data is in the form of film, as in the case of angiography, when it is paused the same frame appears on the screens of all the doctors. They can measure, for example, the cross-sections of blood vessels and discuss a specific frame. It is this function that sets TeleDICOM apart from other teleconsultation, or remote consulting, systems. During such a session, all the participants can see exactly the same medical data at a given time and can talk about it freely.

The application can be used wherever there is internet access. The system has passed the test during many video conferences, including conferences with hospitals in Germany and France, and even brainstorming sessions across the Atlantic with doctors from the United States.

A new challenge for the scientists are systems for supporting home treatment of patients based on remote monitoring, via PC or a mobile network. Patients will be able to communicate with their physicians from home. They will no longer have to spend many days in hospitals to have their health monitored on an ongoing basis.
Karolina Olszewska
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