Cameras Link Doctors with Medics in the Field Ambulances in Tucson, Ariz., are being fitted with video cameras to provide a high-definition, wireless connection between doctor and paramedic. Dubbed "ER Link," the technology could build bridges, but some medics fear the system might undermine their value.
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Cameras Link Doctors with Medics in the Field

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Cameras Link Doctors with Medics in the Field

Cameras Link Doctors with Medics in the Field

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Paramedics in Arizona have a new tool to help patients make it to the hospital.

In Tucson, fire department ambulances now have wireless hi-definition video feeds. They connect the paramedics to trauma doctors in the emergency room.

From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Tony Ganzer reports.

TONY GANZER: Medics Bryce Walmac(ph) and Nick Janton(ph) grab their medical bags and gurney as Medic One stops at the scene of an apparent drug overdose.

BRYCE WALMAC: This patient's(ph) saying he's probably on heroin, cocaine, maybe some meth.

NICK JANTON: What are you on? What are you taking?

GANZER: The patient is built like a linebacker, covered in dirt and soaking in sweat, his eyes are saucers and his heart rate is racing near 180. The medics say at all times, point two cocaine overdose.

WALMAC: You're going to the hospital, Dude.

GANZER: The crew of Medic One helps the patient onto the gurney and into the ambulance, and Senior Paramedic Walmac begins to monitor his patient's vital signs. This is not a serious life-threatening trauma call, like a car accident, stabbing or shooting, but Walmac fires up his E.R. Link video system anyway. It's the first night he's had it and he wants to see it work.

WALMAC: We do not have a trauma patient here. We have a drug overdose. We're just testing out the camera to see how it works. Can you hear me?

Unidentified Woman: Go talk through your headset.

GANZER: A rotating camera springs to life in the corner of the ambulance, and images from University Medical Center streamed to a monitor. The image of a nurse in pink scrubs flashes on the screen in crisp streaming video, though her voice is a little garbled.

Woman: Go ahead. (Unintelligible).

WALMAC: Did you not understand me? Well, that was (unintelligible) before, right?

GANZER: This was E.R. Link's first real run. The system's audio connection wasn't clear. So medic Bryce Walmac had to use his standard radio. Still, E.R. Link's creator say the system has a great potential.

RIFAT LATIFI: It's almost like being there.

GANZER: That's Dr. Rifat Latifi, he's a surgeon with University Medical Center, one of the driving forces behind E.R. Link.

LATIFI: So you see the patient, you see the paramedic, you see the procedures, you see the vital signs - everything that a paramedic is seeing we will have access to it.

GANZER: Latifi says information is key for treatment providers instead of only hearing about a patient's condition and spurts over a radio. E.R. Link will give the doctor a real-time connection with the patient and paramedic in the field. But to make this system work, Latifi needed help.

(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO FEED)

Unidentified Man #4: We've great video coming from trauma center.

FRANCISCO LEYVA: We're looking at the video inside the van right now. We're leaving the hospital. And it's a real good definition. You can count the follicles in his hand.

GANZER: That help came from a Tucson city engineer, Francisco Leyva. He put all the pieces of ER Link together. The secure video feeds from the ambulance and the hospital are delivered via computer interface and travel through a wireless system in Tucson's traffic light. Leyva says future upgrades will even allow a patient's vitals to stream to the hospital interface.

LEYVA: This could be live data coming to the patient instead of that two minutes that would take for them to fax it over.

GANZER: E.R. Link is currently required for use on trauma calls only. Though Leyva says Tucson Fire Department has told its medics they can use the system on all calls, not just traumas, to see how effective it is. The idea of an always-on E.R. Link worries medic Nick Jandon.

JANDON: We don't need somebody watching everything we do. We're trained. We're skilled. We know what we're doing. It almost feels like somebody's second-guessing our skills in that aspect, and it'd be kind of frustrating.

GANZER: E.R. Link is currently running in 17 Tucson Fire Department ambulances. Medics say it's a nice system to have and it could be beneficial, but the crew of Medic One, at least, aren't making any firm endorsements yet. They say the want to see the system prove itself before they fully sign on. And the medics add, they still have to press a button to open a call through the E.R. Link, and for now, during a trauma, that's the last thing on their minds.

For NPR News, I'm Tony Ganzer.

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