Offshore Drill Sites Embrace Telemedicine

Telemedicine via Web conferencing is playing an increasingly important role for workers on remote oil rigs by staving off unwarranted evacuations and providing timely assistance to injuries and illnesses.

Though disasters of magnitude close to the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico don’t happen frequently, off-shore rig workers often work 12 hour days lifting heavy and dangerous equipment. Workers typically work in four-week cycles, where two weeks are devoted to toiling and two weeks are spent recouping on terra firma. The reason for that break is because of the nature of the work: exhausting and remote.

Until recently, workers who became injured or sick would be reviewed by on-site nurses or paramedics who would telephone diagnostics to physicians on shore. Without the ability to examine the rig worker visually, they would often require that the worker be evacuated, a measure that was safe, yet costly.

Now, broadband has become cheaper, rigs are connected to the Internet, and companies have realized that video conferencing can, in many cases, provide sufficient visual evidence to diagnose injured or sick patients. In several instances this can save timely and costly evacuations of workers who didn’t actually need emergency evacuation. Also, in dire cases, emergency technicians on shore can see electrocardiograms or laboratory tests quickly, allowing them to more accurately assess the patient and determine the emergency care.

According to a recent report in Telemedicine and e-health programs at universities such as George Washington (GW) and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB) saw more than 80,000 patients over videoconference last year. Though the report doesn’t make clear exactly how many of these were rig workers, it suggests that a good portion call in from the platforms.

In addition, drilling contractors using video conferencing for medical ends exist virtually all over the world, from the South China Sea to the Atlantic off of Brazil and the Caribbean.

According to the report, the potential oil-industry market includes 322 active drilling rigs and about 1,000 occupied platforms.

Alexander Vo, the executive director of the Center for Telehealth Research and Policy at UTMDB, said in the report that the merging of medicine and telecom has not only been beneficial for employee health but has been a cost cutter for corporations too.

“Oil rigs do not have medical specialists on board,” he said. “So telemedicine is a means to bringing specialists on board and treating the patients.”

The GW maritime program reports treating everything from bumps and bruises to asthma and cardiac arrest via two-way videoconferencing. Offshore platforms call in to a call-handling center, which forwards the call to a team of physicians, who then diagnose the problem.

According to the report, one company, called InPlace Medical resolves 80- to 85 percent of the situations without evacuating the patient.