Telepresence branches out beyond the boardroom

From universities to medical providers, organizations are realizing benefits from the lifelike telepresence experience

Making meetings among colleagues and customers far more productive and efficient is but one of the purposes of telepresence. Organizations around the globe, representing a variety of industries, are finding plenty of ways to leverage the technology, be it for education, medicine, or HR.

[ Learn more about the telepresence landscape. | Check out the InfoWorld Test Center's hands-on review of Cisco TelePresence System 500 and midrange telepresence products from Polycom and LifeSize. ]

Just what the doctor ordered
Advances in videoconferencing and telecommunications are proving a boon for members of the health industry -- as well as people who don't have easy access to medical care.

Take America Service Group, a provider of health care services for state and local governments throughout the United States. The company also has a subsidiary called Clinical e-Health Solutions, which focuses on the private sector. The organizations leverage telepresence gear from Polycom to connect patients with medical care from afar, a practice called telemedicine.

"On a national scale, we're seeing specialists gravitating toward larger cities, and this is causing a shortage of primary care providers in areas that, while not quite remote, are increasingly underserved in terms of health care," said Dr. Carl Keldie, chief medical officer for Clinical e-Health Solutions. "This has created an opportunity for us to apply the telemedicine expertise we've developed over the past 15 years for government clients, and make them available to commercial health care providers."

Clinical e-Health Services, for example, operates a network of systems that allows Keldie and his team of clinicians to communicate with one another; they can also provide both specialty and primary care to consumers without having to spend time and money on travel. "You have a growing need in these facilities for more fundamental medicine, such as managing diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Our telemedicine network allows us to leverage a pool of primary clinicians to provide care without forcing those physicians to physically commute to that location."

Clinical e-Health Solutions' dispersed team of clinicians are able to call one another via the network directly from their laptops or PCs. Within the medical care facilities, they use 17-inch LCD monitors -- which can double as PC displays -- for video calls.

Eliminating that commute has helped ASG and Clinical e-Health Solutions cut operating costs. "In the past three to five years, we've realized savings that exceed six figures," says Keldie. "Our Polycom system leverages our clinicians' time and expertise every time we use them."

Widening the hiring net
Yet another application for telepresence: hiring far-flung talent. After a 2006 merger of three companies, One Communications, a CLEC (competitive local exchange carrier) found itself with two headquarters -- one in Waltham, Mass., and one in Rochester, N.Y. -- as well as executives split up among several locations throughout the country.

The company found that it could use telepresence to make hiring new employees more efficient and less costly. Companies often don't want to limit themselves to hiring from a local pool of talent. When you cast your net further, you do have the option of conducting interviews over the telephone. That approach, however, is limiting in that the hiring manager can't observe the potential employee's body language, critical to evaluating a person's character. A common alternative, therefore, is to fly in candidates for a face-to-face interview, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

One Communications embraced its existing Tandberg telepresence systems to improve the hiring process. The company has several such telepresence systems, connecting offices in locations such as Waltham, Rochester, and Green Bay, Wis. It also has many desktop high-definition video units in the offices of its executives.

Executives are able to conduct interviews on large HD plasma screens, enabling them to clearly read body language during interviews and evaluate a candidate's character. When they ask tough questions, they can assess the candidate's reaction.

"We ... used the system to recruit a number of candidates, including an executive and several specialty engineers," said Kristen Vacchetto, corporate staffing manager for One Communications. "Using telepresence for the initial screening of candidates located outside of the local area is more economical than travel and a much more effective alternative to a phone interview since executives can assess candidates' facial expressions."

Broadening higher education
Telepresence is also putting education in reach of individuals who might otherwise lack the time or resources to attend classes in person. This creates opportunities for universities, training providers, and other educational organizations to extend the reach of their offerings. It also creates an opportunity for companies to ensure employees can undergo valuable training without having to sap the budget by leaving town for long periods of time.

The University of Queensland, based in Australia, has embraced telepresence in a big way. The university serves close to 38,000 students from more than 110 countries and has around 15,000 staff, 774 buildings, and four major campuses, with another 45 sites throughout Queensland, including two islands in the Great Barrier Reef region. In addition to deploying the largest 802.11n wireless network in the world, the university is deploying the largest tertiary Cisco TelePresence network in Asia Pacific to facilitate international and cross-campus collaboration.

According to the university, the telepresence network will bolster the learning experiences for teachers and students by fostering collaboration between local university campuses and overseas institutions. Ultra-high-definition video telepresence technology will be used across the multiple university campuses to deliver remote lectures and enhance personal contact for students and teachers in the more remote locations. The system will also provide researchers with better mechanisms for collaboration and innovation by disseminating research to extended teams on university campuses and other education and research institutions.

The potential applications and benefits of telepresence are indeed numerous. As system prices continue to decrease and interoperability among equipment from different brands improves, more organizations will embrace the technology. Companies won't miss the high cost of airline tickets and hotel stays. Employees surely won't miss the jet lag.

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