Mercy for tsunami victims?

SAN DIEGO -- The Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy has wideband satellite communications capabilities, which would allow the ship to use telehealth systems to aid victims of last week's tsunami if the ship is deployed on a humanitarian mission, said Lt. Cmdr. Erik Threet, the ship's chief information officer.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, which is spearheading U.S. military tsunami humanitarian relief operations, said in a Jan. 4 press briefing yesterday that the Defense Department is "looking very carefully at deploying" the Mercy, a 1,000-bed hospital ship with 12 operating rooms homeported here to aid tsunami victims.

The Mercy started a sea trial on Jan. 4 to get ready for a possible deployment, Fargo said. DOD officials, he added, are considering "creative" ways to employ the Mercy, designed to treat combat wounded, on a tsunami humanitarian mission. This could include the use of medical personnel from non-governmental organizations, Fargo said.

Threet, also head of the information technology department at the Naval Medical Center, said the Mercy is packed with high-tech systems designed to provide the best medical care possible, including a broadband "Challenge Athena" C-band satellite system which has a raw throughput of 1.54 megabits per second.

This satellite system can be used to support consultation between medical specialists on shore and medical staff on the ship, said Navy Capt. Robert Wah, director of information management for the Military Health System.

The Mercy's satellite-based telehealth system "expands the capabilities" of the ship and broadens the scope of injuries and illnesses the onboard medical staff can treat, Wah said.

Threet said the Mercy also has teleradiology systems, which can transmit X-rays taken onboard to radiologists at NMC San Diego for interpretation.

The Mercy also has hundreds of shipboard terminals running the Composite Health Care System (CHCS), an electronic medical record system, Threet said. Cmdr. Emory Fry, a neonatologist and head of application development at NMC San Diego, said the Mercy's CHCS system can be used to register tsunami patients and the track their lab tests, X-rays and prescriptions.

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