Accordingly, Montopoli said a medical evacuation from Antarctica can cost “several hundred thousand dollars.”
While telemedicine has broadened health-care options in Antarctica, physicians and patients still must contend with some limitations. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station only gets Internet access for about 12 hours a day because of the positioning of the satellites that provide connectivity.
“We can provide very good technology on each end that provides the most effective use of bandwidth, but if there’s nothing to run it over, there’s a challenge,” said Ron Emerson, global director for health care at Polycom.
Closer to home
In the same way telemedicine has flung open the doors for more and improved care in Antarctica, its practitioners and advocates say it could have the same power closer to home.
In America’s rural areas, it can often be difficult for residents to get access to specialist physicians. As the Affordable Care Act extends health insurance to millions of Americans who previously did not have it, experts say that shortage is likely to be felt even more acutely.
Polycom and UTMB say telemedicine could help meet the swell in demand.
“The financial incentive is going to be there,” Parazynski said, for his hospital and other health providers to increase their telemedicine offerings.
In fact, UTMB pediatricians already use telemedicine technology to serve children in rural areas.
Oliver Black, systems analyst services manager at UTMB, said telemedicine could also be used in the future to monitor patients with chronic conditions in their homes.
Still, there are obstacles to more widespread use of telemedicine. A telemedicine consultation is not typically billable in the same way an office visit would be, which can create difficulties for physicians wishing to practice this way.
And there are some aspects of an in-person physician-patient interaction that telemedicine can not quite replicate.
“You’re relying on the person on the scene to pick up on the subtle changes in facial expression,” Parazynski said. “And you miss out on touch.”
Technologists and practitioners say they still see room for innovation that would also further telemedicine’s reach. Advancements in surgical robotics, for example, could make it possible for operations to be done from afar, rather than just consultations and examinations.