Teleradiology link thaws communications for Antarctic researchers

November 4, 2002

Three research stations in Antarctica are now wired to transfer DICOM images directly to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB). A new contract awarded by Raytheon Polar Services (RPS), the logistical support contractor for the

Three research stations in Antarctica are now wired to transfer DICOM images directly to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB).

A new contract awarded by Raytheon Polar Services (RPS), the logistical support contractor for the National Science Foundation in Antarctica, provides specialty medical services via telemedicine to the approximately 3500 NSF researchers and support personnel rotating through Antarctica in a given year.

Although stations are staffed by emergency physicians and physician's assistants, as well as supported by RPS medical resources, onsite specialty care is limited. UTMB's role is to provide additional support with difficult cases or those requiring specialty opinions.

The polar physician requesting the assistance notifies the UTMB 24/7 access point, HealthCare Hotline, by phone or e-mail that a consult is pending. HealthCare Hotline then notifies the radiologist or other specialist to take the consultation.

The network is part of the normal communications between Antarctica and the U.S.

"We connect for video consultations using this network and the public switched network from the RPS medical office and UTMB via ISDN dial-up at 384 kbps," said Jake Angelo, director of technology at UTMB's Center for Telehealth and Distance Education.

The major change required for the sites to include a teleradiology component was to simply add a new IP address to the transmit system for radiology images. Providing a teleradiology link to the South Pole poses special challenges, however.

"The sites are hours ahead of Central Standard Time," Angelo said. "Due to lack of satellite line-of-sight during certain time periods, they have varying degrees of connectivity during our day and night - on some days, they may have a large-bandwidth pipe over which to communicate, and at other times, it may be minimal at best."

Since these times are predictable, they can usually be managed.

"In order to hit a satellite, you have to shoot over the equator. The Earth gets in the way if you're on the South Pole," he said.

Four satellites have been identified that, because of their orbit at certain times of the day, come over the horizon long enough to get two to four hours of good connectivity. The system switches between those satellites to maintain a reasonable amount of connectivity at all times.

UTMB, a world leader in such long-distance enterprises, provides telemedicine services for about 120,000 prison inmates in east Texas, with over 30,000 telemedicine encounters. Next up is a telemedicine triage project to deliver emergency medical care to offshore oil and gas rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico.