NLM awards $42M in research grants

The National Library of Medicine has injected $42 million into telemedicine research awarding 19 contracts this month to vendors who will demonstrate the possibilities and pitfalls of using high-speed telecommunications networks to transmit medical information in real-lifesituations.

The awards part of the federal government's High-Performance Computing and Communications program are among the largest provided to date for research into civilian telemedicine applications. The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments also conduct telemedicine research but emphasize mission-oriented projects such as how telemedicine can aid soldiers and doctors on the battlefield.

"We're trying to see how the HPCC technology fits in medicine " said Michael Ackerman assistant director for HPCC at NLM. "We've taken pains to have a whole bunch of different kinds of applications. The question for us is: Into which ones does it fit best?"

The vendors - which include hospitals universities and a couple of computer technology companies - will evaluate how much HPCC technology can improve medical care and the bottom line. "In any kind of new technology it's critical to show that it's safe and produces a benefit that justifies its expense " said Thomas Garthwaite deputy undersecretary of the Veterans Health Administration.

The contracts are among the first to attempt to show how effective telemedicine might be a shift from previous federal telemedicine grants that were made to "just get telemedicine going " said Jim Grigsby an associate professor with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center's Department of Medicine who is working on a separate research project on the efficacy of telemedicine for the Health Care Financing Administration.

David Balch director of telemedicine with East Carolina University's School of Medicine Greenville N.C. said that although the telemedicine industry is expected to grow substantially federal grants can help the industry "figure out what's real what's not real and how to keep it from being abused." ECU was among five telemedicine centers to receive money from HCFA recently to demonstrate how Medicare could cover remote medical consultations.

Among the projects NLM funded:

* A consortium led by West Virginia University's Concurrent Engineering Research Center Morgantown W.Va. will test if existing security technology can protect patient health information that is transmitted over the Internet.

* BDM Federal Inc. McLean Va. and the University of Maryland at Baltimore will examine whether wireless networks can be used to send patients' vital signs and video images from an ambulance to a hospital emergency room.

* The University of California San Francisco will link four area medical centers to allow transmission of brain and breast images for consultations research education and other services.

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