New technology helps advance telemedicine during surgeries in COVID-19 era

The coronavirus pandemic introduced more people to telemedicine. Now, as some surgeries resume, new technology is bringing surgical expertise from around the world into local hospitals.
PALO ALTO, Calif. (KABC) -- The COVID-19 era created an environment where patients became more comfortable with telemedicine. Now, as we begin to see a resumption of surgeries, a California company is pioneering what it calls procedural telemedicine.

Millions of surgeries every year, from knee replacements to pacemakers, have a medical device representative in the operating room providing technical and clinical support to your surgeon. COVID-19 ended that practice, at least temporarily, but the need for the expertise remains.

"As a surgeon, you have hundreds and hundreds of products that you use regularly and the details are minute, but they're meaningful," said Daniel Hawkins, CEO of Avail Medsystems.

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As soon as the first COVID-19 case was identified here in the United States, the quest for a treatment began.

Three years ago, Palo Alto-based Avail Medsystems pioneered remote collaboration in surgeries as a way to lower the cost of health care, but when the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically restricted who could be in an operating room, the demand for procedural telemedicine skyrocketed.

"There's a massive backlog of elective procedures that weren't being done for the last 8-10 weeks, that are now starting to be done. The problem is you can't social distance in an operating room," said Hawkins.

Avail Medsystems uses Ethernet, which is an increased bandwidth to allow an expert to assist a surgeon in real-time, seeing the imaging equipment, the surgical field and communicating as if they were in the room.

"I can talk to the people; they can talk back to me. I can focus directly on the procedure, highlight certain things and the imaging systems, which we noticed on June 11 when we first used the system, are very clear," said Dr. Venky Ramaiah, chief of complex vascular surgery with Honor Health.

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The Mayo Clinic says patients who received the treatments generally had good results.

There are plans in place for one medical device company to train 20,000 physicians on how to use a new orthopedic implant through Avail. The training one-by-one in person would take months and be enormously expensive. With Avail, new products can now get to you, the patient, in a fraction of the time.

"If you think about that as a patient, wouldn't you want that?" Hawkins said.

"It's as much of a no-brainer as you can imagine. It's just a matter of time in terms of how these systems are implemented, you know who's gonna burden some of the cost of this? These are things that are going to have to be figured out, but if you look at the big picture, this is definitely the future," said Dr. Shephal Doshi, director of cardiac electrophysiology with St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica.

And it's not just training that Avail hopes to share. Hawkins wants to remove all barriers that might slow access to expertise, whether that's geography or socioeconomic factors.

"We could have the best expertise in the world show up in an on-demand, phone-a-friend fashion in operating rooms in the most under-privileged areas anywhere in the country," said Hawkins.

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"SICK FOR MONTHS." A local doctor says that coronavirus can cause long-term health issues for some patients. He compared COVID-19 to other viral illnesses like polio or hepatitis, which can leave you with permanent or long-lasting damage.

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