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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

Companies See Healthy Future in Internet Medicine

March 07, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man's heart beats in Sacramento, and 400 miles away, Fritz Braunberger watches it thump.

If he were a doctor, Braunberger could point out what's happening here, how the blood is received and pumped through the ventricle. But Braunberger is a businessman whose specialty is the Internet.

The heart is on a computer screen in his Thousand Oaks office.

And as chief executive of IntraCom, he's among a group of businesspeople and health-care workers who are exploring what some call the future of medicine: one augmented by long-distance tools and reliance on the Web.

Braunberger's new product--called MedEcho--would allow doctors to watch a heart's ultrasound over the Internet live from wherever they might be: at home, in another wing of the hospital, on the beach. At this point, for the most part, physicians have been forced to drive in, or count on a colleague to describe the image in detail over the phone.

Braunberger envisions a network of his products around the country, with far-flung locales hooked up to specialized medical expertise.

"Where are the good doctors? They're in the metropolitan areas," he said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

It's an idea that's been around since the birth of the Internet and is slowly gaining steam, hospitals and businesses say. It may sound futuristic--caring for patients from hundreds of miles away--but doctors say it's a tool that will become part of their arsenal, from the simple cases to the more challenging--such as an echocardiogram image of the heart.

And, its proponents say, it will ultimately save money.

"This streamlines the supply chain," said Murray Firestone, president of Thousand Oaks-based VirTx, the multimedia division of E-MedSoft.com, another company that helps send medical images over the Internet. "It simply cuts down on costs."

Most images that are sent over the Internet between doctors are still photos, mainly used for radiology and dermatology diagnoses. Heart ultrasounds are trickier: The doctor needs to see a smooth, real-time moving image, not a herky-jerky, stop-and-go blur.

At its most advanced level, it requires transmission of huge amounts of data and images over phone lines that are already congested. IntraCom says its method of compressing those images has solved the problem, and, indeed, the ultrasound images seem to appear instantly on a computer screen distant from the test.

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Local hospitals say they have begun exploring some of the possibilities of the Internet in diagnosing far-flung patients.

Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission, as part of a plan to promote affordable services to those living in rural areas, approved $400 million a year for hospitals to obtain high-speed Internet access. That decision helped jump-start telemedicine, which uses videoconferencing and computer networking to allow physicians to monitor patients.

At Ventura County Medical Center in Ventura--supported, in part by MediCal--doctors already use the Web to answer questions by e-mail and pull in still images on a daily basis, said Dr. Chris Landon, director of pediatrics at the hospital. Specialists there handle cases throughout three counties and are only able to get to clinics once a month, or even less often.

"I cover clinics in Santa Maria and Lompoc," said Dr. Michael Maquire, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the hospital. "If they have a problem, they have to drive 200 miles to see me. If I can see a live video of them walking, that saves everyone time."

The hospital is even attempting an independent version of what IntraCom and VirTx sell, attempting to compress the memory-sapping images to fit on a limited bandwidth.

"We're experimenting with taking pediatric ultrasound," Landon said. "We'll have a doctor in Thousand Oaks see the [ultrasound on the Internet], and then we'll send the image by car and see if he comes up with the same information."

The more ambitious forms of Internet medicine face challenges that aren't strictly technological. Many states have passed laws making it more difficult for patients to consult with doctors who are not licensed in the state where the telemedicine procedure is being performed.

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And lines can be expensive, although IntraCom says MedEcho will only cost about $500 a month for the average hospital, with both hospitals requiring the technology. But the kinks are merely part of a march that will clearly continue, doctors say, as the Internet grows and companies increase their capabilities.

"The future of telemedicine is clearly the Internet," said Pierre Wong, director of echocardiography at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, where doctors are test-driving MedEcho.

"These are steps in the right direction."

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