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INTRACOM–System Lets Doctors Make Diagnoses Via the Internet

Quite a few unlikely things have been made possible by the advent of the Internet, but few would have foretold that the technology would lead to medical exams in which patient and doctor would never have to meet in person. Thousand Oaks-based IntraCom Corp. has created a system that makes this phenomenon possible. With the company’s product, MedEcho, doctors will be able to tap into ultrasound images, broadcast live in real time over the Internet, to do everything from diagnosing heart conditions to determining the sex of a baby for pregnant mothers. The product is one of the few available that allow doctors to access diagnostic-quality moving ultrasound images from remote locations. “There are a shortage of specialists in the U.S.,” said founder and Chief Executive Fritz Braunberger. “With MedEcho, all you need is an ultrasound machine and a technician in a rural area or country and you can reach a top doctor at UCLA instantly who can then determine what needs to be done. It increases access (for patients).” In December, the company got FDA approval to market MedEcho. It has since released a beta-test version of the product that is currently being used by about 30 hospitals nationwide, and IntraCom officials plan to launch the final product in the second quarter. The system is geared primarily at cardiologists and obstetricians who use ultrasound machines. The company has so far raised $11.5 million in private funding and plans to launch an IPO later this year. New advances Until recently, it had been impossible to send diagnostic-quality moving images over the Internet because there wasn’t sufficient bandwidth to accommodate moving pictures with the necessary detail. “For pediatrics, the diagnostic quality is so rigorous,” said Pierre Wong, director of cardiology at Childrens Hospital L.A. “With fast heart rates of kids, you need almost broadcast-quality video.” Childrens Hospital will test MedEcho by connecting with L.A. County-USC Medical Center over the next several months before deciding whether to buy into the final version of the system. County-USC will be able to transmit ultrasounds to pediatric specialists at Childrens Hospital for instant diagnosis. MedEcho consists of a device that plugs into an ultrasound machine and translates the information to digital form, which is transmitted over the Internet or other high-speed connection and available to a physician or specialist through a PC on the other end. Any computer that is equipped with the MedEcho client software and has a password for the Web site with the image can log on. Thus, a technician can operate the ultrasound on the patient and the doctor can view the screening from a remote location, while telling the technician where to scan over the phone. MedEcho uses a specially created algorithm that allows hospitals to send the ultrasound images at up to 30 frames a second, substantially faster than the average of seven frames a second for other real-time and streaming video, Braunberger said. The additional speed is mandatory for physicians to accurately diagnose a patient, Wong said. The images are saved so that doctors can go back and review them at a later time. Positive feedback UC Irvine Medical Center has been using the beta version for several weeks and Cheryl Reid, associate professor of medicine, said so far it has lived up to the hype. “It’s able to transmit moving images, which is difficult with ultrasounds,” Reid said. “Up to now, the Internet has been used primarily in radiology to transmit still images.” IntraCom’s biggest obstacle so far has been cost, Braunberger said. The company at first tried to sell its machines to hospitals, but a lack of interest convinced them to lease the equipment and tack on an additional charge every time it is used, thus making it more affordable. Hospitals using the beta version of MedEcho are not charged. IntraCom also faces increased competition in the field. Although it is the only company yet to win FDA approval for its system, Hewlett Packard and makers of ultrasound machines are working on similar technology. “The whole field of video medicine over the Internet is a big field,” Wong said. “It’s such an early technology and it’s still coming into its own.” IntraCom got its start at an Agoura Hills office supply store in 1995, when Braunberger bumped into a friend of his from high school. Braunberger was working on an Internet company, Megashop, which wasn’t catching on, and James Calonge, now senior vice president of IntraCom, was a quality assurance auditor for a hospital. The two began talking and outlined a business plan on a napkin. IntraCom was born.

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