PCs may hold key to improved medical care, computer science researchers say
COLLEGE STATION - That PC sitting on the desk at home will one day improve access to health care and reduce doctor's office visits by making an individual's medical history available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, say computer science researchers at Texas A&M University. Their project in telemedicine - providing health care over distance through telecommunications technology - uses PCs to connect medical instruments, image software, portable ultrasound and other equipment into a streamlined medical information system. Steve Liu, associate professor of computer science at Texas A&M, said the goal is to make medical records available any time, any place, to health care workers and patients. Liu heads the computer science department's research group for real-time distributed systems. Such systems allow information to be shared among many computers at the same time for nearly instant answers. "Let's say you're injured away from home. You could have a watch device with your medical information," Liu said. "An out-of-town doctor could hook up the watch face to a computer and access your medical data from your primary provider's database so you could get proper, timely treatment." Although that scenario is years into the future, Liu and his research group are taking steps toward making it reality. In a demonstration project with San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center, administered through the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, they're developing software to analyze weakened blood vessels in the retina caused by diabetes. Damage may already exist before patients notice a change in vision. Examining the retina to find damage is labor-intensive and error-prone, Liu said. "We're aiming to improve the identification of problem areas," he said. "The software can help pick out the danger signs and store them in a database for future reference. The next time the patient has an appointment, the doctor can take another look at the problem areas to see if they've changed." Liu said information from different patients also could be cross-referenced to help others. "The difficulty now is that information is scattered in separate medical facilities," he said. "It's time-consuming when a doctor needs to ask for your records from someone else. When we travel or relocate, we can lose track of health data crucial to future care and in emergencies." Under a streamlined system, Liu said information could be shared with other doctors to help more patients. Privacy and legal issues, however, would need to be worked out first. "The challenge is to create an information network where patient records can be shared securely," he said. Ultimately, having such a system will help patients take a bigger role in monitoring their health and reduce unnecessary doctor visits - something that will become more important as baby boomers age and health care costs continue to rise, he said. "It's also something that can help people in rural areas here and in other countries," Liu added. "We have a chance to do things we know will enrich others' lives, using technology to help solve social problems. It's a rewarding experience."