Paramedics in Tucson, Arizona have a new tool in their toolbox. Fire department ambulances now have wireless, high definition video feeds connecting trauma doctors to paramedics in the field. Already in its first month creators of “ER Link” say it’s the first successful city-wide system of its kind. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Tony Ganzer reports.
TG: Medics Bryce Womack and Nick Janton grab their medical bags and gurney as Medic One stops at the scene of an apparent drug overdose.
POLICE OFFICER: “His mother says he’s on heroine, cocaine and maybe some meth.”
OTHER VOICE: “What are you on? What did you take?”
TG: 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 all signs point to cocaine overdose.
MEDIC: “You’re going to the hospital, dude.”
TG: The crew of Medic One helps the patient onto the gurney and into the ambulance, and Senior Paramedic Womack begins to monitor his patient’s vital signs. This is not a serious, life threatening trauma call like a car accident or shooting…but Womack fires up his ER Link video system, anyway…he wants to see it work.
WOMACK: “We do not have a trauma call, we’re just testing the camera. Can you hear me?”
DISPATCH: “Pick up your headset.”
TG: A rotating camera springs to life in the corner of the ambulance and images from University Medical Center stream 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.
DISPATCH: (Garbled) “I can’t understand you, but I can see.”
WOMACK: “You can’t hear me? Well, that was fun.”
TG: This was ER Link’s first real run. The system’s audio connection wasn’t clear, so medic Bryce Womack had to use his standard radio. Still, ER Link’s creators say the system has great potential.
LATIFI: “We had these fancy offices that closed at 5 o’clock, in Europe and other parts of the world 3 o’clock.”
Doctor Rifat Latifi is a surgeon with University Medical Center, and one of the driving forces of ER Link.
LATIFI: “We needed to bring telemedicine where the patients are. You can see the patient, the paramedic, the procedures—everything the paramedic sees we will have access to it.”
TG: Latifi says information is key for treatment providers, and he says there should be no difference in care in a hospital, ambulance, or anywhere else. But to make this system work, he needed help.
LEYVA: “We’re looking at video from the van right now. We’re leaving the hospital. It’s really good definition, you can count follicles on the hand.”
TG: Francisco Leyva is the Tucson City engineer who 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 traffic lights.
Leyva says future upgrades will even allow a patient’s vitals to stream to the hospital interface.
LEYVA: This could be live data, instead of taking two minutes to be faxed
TG: ER Link is currently slated for use on the most serious calls. There are rumors, though, of keeping the system running for all calls, not just traumas, and that worries medic Nick Janton.
JANTON: “We don’t need people watching everything we do: we’re trained, we’re skilled, we know what we’re doing..it would be almost like someone second-guessing our skills in that respect. It would be frustrating.”
TG: ER 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 medics still have to press a button to open a call, and they say during a trauma, that’s the last thing on their minds.
For NPR News, I’m Tony Ganzer.