Tucson, Baton Rouge pioneer Wi-Fi networks to save lives and trauma costs
In March, East Baton Rouge Parish, La., became just the second locality in the nation to deploy live telemedicine from ambulance to emergency department via a public Internet connection, and some experts believe the technology could become commonplace in a relatively short time.
Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, Washington, D.C., says residents of major metropolitan areas should expect most ambulances to have mobile video and data links within a decade.
“I think five years is more reasonable,” says Rifat Latifi, M.D., director of telemedicine for trauma and critical care at the University of Arizona and the University Medical Center in Tucson. “It should be part of our practice.”
Tucson was the first city to set up a Wi-Fi network specifically for mobile teletrauma care. Thanks to a $3 million federal grant, the city has built a 227-square-mile wireless infrastructure that reaches 95 percent of the residential population. It installed video equipment on all 18 city-owned ambulances and at UMC, the area’s only Level 1 trauma center.
ER-Link, launched in 2007, allows emergency and trauma physicians to triage cases remotely, even while patients are in transit. “The medics put aside their egos and let the doctors step in,” says Dave Ridings, Tucson Fire Department assistant chief, who heads emergency services. “It usually happens in 20- to 30-second snapshots when the vehicle is stationary, but it can transmit while moving.”
That can save big dollars considering that each Level 1 trauma activation involves 18 to 20 people and costs the hospital $5,000, Latifi says. If a single physician or nurse triages the case by video, the system can prevent unnecessary trauma calls. Latifi is pulling together data on ER-Link and expects to submit studies for peer review later this year.
Tucson is a relatively small city with a centralized ambulance system and a single Level 1 trauma center. Baton Rouge is taking the concept one step further with BR Med-Connect, which will link multiple locations. The launch came with only Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center online and a network covering just eight square miles, but Chad Guillot, EMS assistant administrator for the parish, expects to have Baton Rouge General Medical Center connected this spring, and there are plans to expand to seven hospitals.
Ridings says he has had conversations about mobile telemedicine with EMS executives from other locations, including New York City, so a wider deployment may be on the horizon.
This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of H&HN magazine.