Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are exploring whether extending distant medical consultation to a portable, three-dimensional telepresence technology could improve the quality of diagnosis and treatment.

The National Library of Medicine recently awarded the department of computer science a three-year, $2.6-million contract to develop and test technology allowing 3-D video of the patient and surroundings, with opportunity for medical professionals on- and off-site to communicate in real time.

UNC computer science researchers are developing a prototype for use in medical facilities. The research team plans to test its effectiveness by exploring its use, compared to the use of two-dimensional teleconferencing, during tracheostomies being performed at UNC Hospitals.

“Airway obstruction is the leading cause of preventable death in situations where patients die en route to the hospital,” said Bruce Cairns, co-principal investigator on the study, research director in the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center and assistant professor of surgery in UNC’s School of Medicine. “Testing this technology in an acute situation allows us to assess the hypotheses regarding the capture of these procedures and determine whether we can effectively bring the consultant to the bedside and the bedside to the consultant.”

The idea behind the grant originated two years ago, when the team of investigators sent a proposal to the National Library of Medicine to study how high-speed mobile networks could improve health-care management. The technical questions involved in extending telepresence are substantial, they noted, but there is a need for such advances.

“If you could use technology to cross geographical barriers, you could extend opportunity to people who live in rural or remote areas,” Cairns said. “We believe people should be able to get the very best care they can get and not have their access to specialized acute care limited by where they live.”

The other co-principal investigators on the project are Ketan Mayer-Patel, assistant professor, and Greg Welch, research associate professor, both of UNC’s department of computer science, as well as Diane Sonnenwald, a professor at Goteborg University in Sweden.

Additional collaborators include Anthony Meyer, professor and chair of UNC’s department of surgery; Eugene Freid, associate professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics; and Robert Vissers, assistant professor of emergency medicine.