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September, 28, 2016

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Technology to virtually beam critical medical expertise to remote Alaska hospital

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The only clinic in one of the nation's busiest commercial fishing ports is so remote that even conventional telemedicine for emergencies has been impossible for its limited staff — until this week.

Starting Thursday, a new partnership with an Anchorage hospital will virtually beam critical care doctors 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) away to the emergency room on the island that holds Dutch Harbor, the operations base for the Bering Sea crabbing fleet made famous by the Discovery Channel show "Deadliest Catch."

But instead of transmissions with fiber-optics, which are nowhere near isolated Unalaska Island, the team putting together the system is relying on satellite technology in what is believed to be a first in the country for telemedicine. The new connection is expected to boost outpatient care as needed by clinic staffers, including its two non-emergency doctors.

The clinic, Iliuliuk Family and Health Services, brings to nine the number of providers served by the electronic intensive care unit at Anchorage's Providence Alaska Medical Center.

The new system will provide real-time camera links between emergency doctors and clinic staffers during medical emergencies, such as fishing industry injuries.

The idea is to help stabilize patients before transporting them out of town and to help with triage during major events like a ship sinking.

From afar, doctors will be able to view X-rays and patient charts and talk directly with patients on camera instead of consulting with medics by phone and email.

There are some unknowns about how the system will work, with likely slowdowns in satellite reception because of the region's notoriously bad weather.

During the recent demonstration, pre-launch kinks prevented the rolling-cart-mounted camera in Dutch Harbor from being pivoted remotely. But the camera otherwise performed impressively, sending back crystal-clear video of clinic staffers as they chatted with a critical care doctor.

The new service was lauded by Seattle-based crabbing boat owner Lance Farr, who has been badly hurt twice in his decades of working in the Bering Sea.

Several years ago, he almost severed a finger in a dockside engine accident. He was stabilized at the clinic before being flown to Anchorage for further treatment. In 1996, Farr broke his foot at Dutch Harbor after dropping an engine on it. He spent the night at the clinic under the care of nurses before being flown out the next day.

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