Video conferencing offers new ways for clinicians and medical researchers to collaborate. Joe Fernandez looks at how the CancerGrid project is using the technology to link researchers from Belfast to Cambridge.
CancerGrid is a consortium of specialists in oncology and software engineering drawn from five leading UK Universities – Cambridge, Oxford, Birmingham, University College London, and Queens’ University Belfast – who are working together to develop software solutions to help with clinical cancer informatics.
The CancerGrid project is intendec to support researchers whose aim is to help prevent, diagnose and find a cure for the different types of cancer. Video conferencing is enabling researchers from the five universities and linked hospitals to communicate more effectively and meet without endless travel to remote meetings.
Why Video Conferencing?
The Medical Research Council have funded the CancerGrid project to the tune of £2.3m over three years to develop open standards for clinical cancer informatics. The researchers decided early on that they needed to use the most effective communications technology available to enhance collaboration.
Researchers at the different sites found they needed a better way of being able to communicate, update and meet, other than meeting in person or do telephone conference calls.
Kate Caldwell, systems developer at Cambridge told E-Health Insider: “We wanted to have an infrastructure that would allow us to communicate on a daily or weekly basis so that we can share our findings, and offer advice on any data we have found from our trials."
The main focus point for the CancerGrid project is the Cambridge University eScience Centre, but in order to get the maximum results from the trials, the five universities needed to be able to communicate with each other and discuss their findings.
“Realistically, that meant we needed a reliable cost-effective way of communicating with each other and taking time out to drive to different locations was too much hassle. Similarly, using telephone conferencing meant we could not see what we were discussing and so we decided that face-to-face would be best,” said Caldwell.
After evaluating other options the group looked to video conferencing as a way to provide them with the real-time cost-effective solution that they wanted to be able to work with.
CancerGrid eventually chose technology from Codian, a US-based leading manufacturer of video conferencing infrastructure products.
Caldwell said: “We wanted broader capabilities and flexibility for the CancerGrid project, and Codian was the answer. Once we saw the Codian product line, we knew it was exactly what we had been waiting for in a high-performance video conferencing solution. Frankly, we’ve been a bit surprised by the lack of development with other solutions.
One of the most important issues for us was protecting our investment, explained Caldwell. "Codian’s technology is endpoint agnostic, so it works with all the existing video conferencing products that we have already installed. This meant that we didn’t have to spend thousands of pounds upgrading all of our current equipment. It also means that we can easily upgrade the solution as the CancerGrid expands and evolves."
In late 2005, Codian began to deploy its MCU 4200 video bridge and its IP VCR (internet protocol video recorder) 2200 into the five sites and two NHS hospitals. Implementation was quick and smooth and staff found the equipment very user friendly.
Almost immediately, the group started to hold weekly update meetings, where they could see and speak with each other as well as collaborate on issues and share imaging data.
Steve Harris, a developer based in Oxford University said: “The system gives us a complete new work package for our semantics project and for our collection of clinical research data and bio-informatics data. We meet on a weekly basis and have in-depth discussions which we can’t do over a telephone conference – and there’s no travel budget now either.
“It’s great we are able to set up the systems in our own coffee room environment and can use it for real-time analysis and delivery of data and images. Everyone has their own personal system and as informatics developers we can work across more than one screen and easily communicate with each other.”
The CancerGrid team seem convinced that the Codian video conferencing infrastructure does what they wanted from it.
Caldwell said: “The main benefit for us is that it has facilitated project collaboration and made working with each other as simple as possible. We have the best possible audio and video quality for the bandwidth level and are able to have live coverage and video on demand.”
Harris added: “It’s great because it does exactly what it says on the tin. It has been incredibly useful to run code reviews and design on multiple desktops and it allows us to work in exactly the same way as if we were in a building seeing each other face-to-face. It is very easy to maintain, within a decent budget range and helps make inter-group communications a great success.
“We have a big input from scientists across our network and to be able to communicate with 12, sometimes even up to 15 of them at one time, makes our research methods so much easier and takes us one step nearer to achieving our overall objective. It offers a real personalised experience and is very reliable.”
Initially, the eScience Centre didn’t set out to purchase the IP VCR, but once they saw it in action, Caldwell said: “We had to have this capability: we now have an IP VCR, and this will allow us to record specifics about clinical trial information, and demonstrate it for video conferencing to the CancerGrid members.”
“For our clinical trials, the ability to preserve valuable content for future viewing is a key advantage for us. From a research point of view, we think the IP VCR will be a real enabler for us — allowing us to support multi-disciplinary meetings for the review of cancer diagnoses and treatment.”
The CancerGrid feel that the video conferencing technology is one that should be embraced by others. Asked, what the limitations of the system were, there was a long pause, before a seldom few complaints were raised.
Harris said: “Sometimes there is some network lateness in the conferencing resulting in a tiny delay in communications, but the majority of the time the system works perfectly. We get brilliant crystal clear video images and great audio quality from them. With the NHS sites, we’ve found firewalls can slow things a little, but it’s never a major problem for us.”
Clearly impressed by the benefits of the system, the group are keen to encourage other reserachers to investigate the potential of video conferencing technology.
“I’d definitely recommend it to other NHS trusts and research groups. It’s a brilliant way of communicating with others and helps keep the results as clear and accurate as possible,” Harris said.
It is unclear if the NHS will embrace this kind of technology under the National Programme for IT, but the recent tender for additional suppliers included a lot for communications (data, audio, visual and telecommunications) and network services.
Caldwell said: “The NHS could easily embrace this technology. Most sites have the N3 connection, which offers significantly increased bandwidth to support such applications.”
As for CancerGrid, Caldwell says they will continue to embrace the video conferencing technology. “It’s a three year project and once it’s extended there will be a virtual environment infrastructure in place, which will be in place for real-time information.”
Harris added: “As a model of going forward, we will have more value of clinical data quality, standardising on meanings and helping with information capture so that data can be shared. But continuing to use this technology we are taking advantage of a single source and avoiding global warming and unnecessary drives in the Mondeo!”
Michelle Durban, marketing manager at Codian said: “We work with over 150 academic locations and a select few healthcare environments. We see video conferencing as an opportunity for healthcare workers to work together across borders and we hope to see more trusts interested in this opportunity.”