Staff Reporter

Two years ago, while vacationing on a Caribbean cruise, Dr. Spencer Koerner took a tour of the ship's sickbay and was surprised to learn that it was only capable of handling basic medical needs.

What happened if a patient became seriously ill? The boat would either dock, or the passenger would be taken off by helicopter.

That gave Koerner an idea why not bring the emergency room to the ship?

As head of the telemedicine program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, he was already using two-way video technology to hook up medical specialists from across the country. To bring this same technology to sea, he created SeaMed, a Santa Monica company that brings Cedars-Sinai emergency-room specialists to a ship via satellite.

The company's first ocean-bound client is the Grand Princess, owned by Valencia-based Princess Cruises, which Koerner said got the first system at a discount. If successful, Princess officials say they may get similar systems for their other ships.

"One of the advantages is that we can reduce the cost," said Dr. Alastair Smith, Princess Cruises' medical director. "Medical emergencies on cruise ships are fairly frequent. This will definitely improve the quality of care."

SeaMed also plans to market the technology to other cruise lines, private yacht owners and even oil tanker lines as well.

"We are going to improve the quality of health care on ships," Koerner said. "Primary care physicians are good gatekeepers, but we are going to bring care on boats to an even higher standard."

Currently, most cruise liners are only staffed with one, or at the most two, general practitioners, with no specialists. SeaMed's system provides a live, two-way video and audio link via satellite between the ship and Cedars-Sinai's emergency room. Besides allowing for standard videoconferencing between doctors and patients in the two remote locations, it can transmit various physiological data such as radiographs and electrocardiograms.

The system, which was designed to be compact for ship use, is equipped with monitor, microphone, stethoscope and other medical equipment.

The doctor on the ship controls the SeaMed equipment using a Windows 95-based software system, and is linked to doctors through a Hughes Global Services satellite. Hughes has established a partnership with SeaMed in the venture.

"It can extend medical services to anywhere in the world," said Mark Schwene, vice president of Hughes Global Services in El Segundo. "We are pretty excited about it."

Patients have access to 24-hour service, 365 days a year. And more than 60 specialists at Cedars are involved in the telemedicine program with SeaMed.

A single videoconferencing session using the system can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000. And the SeaMed hardware can cost ship owners anywhere from $15,000 to $350,000, depending on the degree of sophistication.

Dr. Michael Langberg, chief medical officer at Cedars-Sinai, said the system will allow people much better access to top medical care.

"People are increasingly taking more complex medication combinations for their heart or other medical problems and need extra information from a specialist," said Langberg. "Before, it was only the (on-ship) physicians alone, now they have live access to a second opinion."

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