Telemedicine and High Speed SATCOM: A Vital Link for Saving Lives of Seafarers

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As fulfilling and compelling as a life at sea can be, it also carries with it dangers – whether your ship is your workplace or it’s simply somewhere you go to relax and escape the busy world. The environment and the vessel itself offer risks, plus you can be faced with the frailty of the human body. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that, when at sea, you can’t simply call 9-1-1 and have a rescue crew drive up to your door moments later and the nearest rescue helicopter might be miles and hours out of range.

Rescue helicopter, safety at sea, telemedicine, KVH, maritime satcom, marine satcom, VSAT at sea, crew welfareThink about these scenarios:

  • A crewman on a factory fishing ship feels numbing in his face and fears he’s having a stroke.
  • A guest begins experiencing chest pains while cruising on a superyacht hours from the nearest port.

The Seafarers’ Bill of Rights, the international set of labor standards protecting onboard employees, requires ship owners to offer crew medical care comparable to that onshore. But the onboard presence of medical professionals is far from common; regulations require a doctor onboard when crew and passengers number more than 100, but most merchant vessels and virtually all leisure craft run with far fewer crew.

The Rise of Telemedicine for Seafarers

For seafarers, the advent of radio and satellite phone services meant a certain degree of real-time access to doctors via telemedicine. The medical professionals on the other end of those radio or satellite phone calls offered a level of medical assistance in the most remote locations with the most unpredictable weather conditions and could make the difference between saving and losing lives.

Still, the effectiveness of the medical care is limited by the medium of the message – voice conversations with a perhaps untrained individual on the line attempting to describe symptoms or situations to a trained medical professional, who then needs to make a diagnosis and recommend a course of action.

Now think of the implications of technology that virtually all of us carry in our pockets – the ability to quickly and easily video chat via Facetime, Skype, or other services with anyone on earth who is on a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop. We take this tech for granted now on shore, but it’s been either an expensive luxury or a practical impossibility at sea due to the costs for data or the inadequate speed of the satellite connections.

But what if it was practical and far more affordable? How could seafarers, travelers, and businesses benefit from easy access to medical help with dedicated video conferencing plus onboard, networked medical monitoring equipment?

The Business Benefits of Telemedicine at Sea

Effective remote medical care not only make a difference in the lives and welfare of seafarers, it makes sense from a business standpoint, from both human resources and cost perspectives. Telemedicine increasingly plays a role in addressing onboard healthcare and crew welfare requirements, as well as the attendant financial considerations.

In a November 2016 article, reported:

Every year, medical emergencies force one in five ships to divert from their course, at an average cost of $180,000 per diversion. A 2013 study found that at least 20% of the cases aren’t critical and could easily be avoided by using modern on-board telemedical assistance.

That’s a total cost of roughly $168 million annually for the shipping industry. The effective deployment of a high-speed SATCOM solution and basic video conferencing data would be a tiny fraction of this expense while paying huge dividends in cost savings.

High Throughput Satellites: Making Video Medicine a Practical Reality

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The 60 cm KVH TracPhone V7-HTS, delivering speeds as fast as 10 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload) along with a free unlimited use data channel for global connectivity.

It’s the SATCOM connection that has always been the sticking point, either because the data rates were too slow to support high quality video or the data cost to do so was staggering. However, that has changed. The advent of high throughput satellites (HTS) has made streaming fast data rates a reality at sea.

KVH’s new TracPhone V7-HTS, together with the new HTS service, delivers download speeds of 10 Mbps and upload rates of 3 Mbps, easily able to support HD video conferencing. And with data that costs pennies per MB, access to that high-speed channel and the data needed is financially practical for fleets and yachts. With the unlimited use data channel that is also provided, there’s tremendous flexibility in how the vessel data and connectivity is managed, enabling operations and crew connections to run on the unlimited data use channel with the high-speed channel held in reserve for high priority activities, including medical emergencies, for example.

Improved safety at sea now becomes another compelling reason to pay attention to the advances in maritime SATCOM and the emergence of HTS connectivity like that offered by KVH and the mini-VSAT Broadband network. With a smartphone in every pocket and medical help a video call away, lives can be saved, crews can feel more confident in their safety at sea, and fleets can prosper.


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Message to Shipowners: Crew Connectivity Adds Competitive Value

About Chris Watson 65 Articles
Chris is the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for KVH Industries. A lifelong sailor and storyteller, he's a self-professed geek who finds all of this technical stuff fascinating.