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University Mobilizes Doctors Online To Address Pandemic

In an eerily prescient move, Dalhousie University was already planning an online meeting with Canadian physicians on pandemic preparedness when word of the swine flu outbreak reached organizers. The news hit close to home: Dalhousie University, a Canadian Ivy League school that is one of the country's top research universities, is located in the province of Nova Scotia on Canada's southeastern coast. Some swine flu cases had just been reported at a private school in the province after students returned from a trip to Mexico.

As Tim Fedak, manager of distributed medical education for the division of medical education at Dalhousie, explained it, he had lined up Nova Scotia's chief medical officer to give a general talk to doctors throughout the province on pandemics. Specifically, Fedak wanted to verify that online Webcasts could be used to communicate with physicians during a pandemic.

The answer appears to be a resounding yes, after Fedak and Phil O'Hara, assistant director, teaching, for Dalhousie's department of academic computing services, quickly pulled together a successful hour-plus give-and-take session on swine flu that drew more than 100 doctors.

The participants, Nova Scotia physicians who were already working around the clock to deal with aspects of the outbreak, logged in via the Internet to participate in the audio and slide presentation. They used Wimba Classroom, communication software that facilitates online meetings and collaboration. Because of the high interest in the topic and corresponding high attendance, the session, which attracted a number of positive comments about the technology, turned into a golden opportunity to introduce area doctors to the ease of use and efficiency of meeting online.

Participating in the session required downloading an applet, which doctors were encouraged to do before the event, and then signing in with a supplied user name and password. Attendees tuned in via broadband Internet connections--and even some dialup--for the evening presentation. Questions could be texted in using Wimba's chat capabilities, or asked verbally through the system's audio setup.

An ID and password system confined the talk to Nova Scotia physicians only; Fedak wanted doctors to feel free to discuss the possible pandemic with the chief medical officer and with each other without worries of press leaks. The disease's spread was still in its earliest stages and rumors were flying, including an early--and incorrect--citing of 107 deaths in Mexico City. (Just seven of those early deaths were subsequently definitely attributed to swine flu, O'Hara said.) "There was a lot of hysteria around," O'Hara commented. "We wanted a closed environment to include just the doctors."

Despite the fact that most participants were first-time users, the support lines that O'Hara and Fedak carefully set up ahead of time to handle problems logged just a few questions before and during the event--a testament, both said, to Wimba's ease of use.

Dalhousie has been using Wimba for online collaboration efforts for years, allowing students to attend interactive classes and other events online using software features that include slide display, voice and chatting capabilities, white board emulation, polling participants, applications sharing, and live video. Fedak, who is in charge of distributed medical education in the province, said he envisions using Wimba to allow time-pressed doctors to save hours of travel time but still attend meetings and meet effectively with colleagues.

Although the presentation hasn't been fully analyzed, O'Hara said doctors from as much as three hours away attended--meaning significant savings in time and money. Also, he pointed out, the online meeting was planned and doctors invited almost instantly via e-mail--something that would have been impossible had a face-to-face meeting room been needed. That kind of almost-instant meeting planning can be extremely useful in future crises, O'Hara pointed out.

The three presenting doctors met at Dalhousie shortly before the event. Literally minutes before the presentation, Fedak said, he was loading their Microsoft PowerPoint presentation slides into Wimba.

Because Fedak and O'Hara were concerned that a high number of participants--given the timeliness of the topic--might push the technology beyond its limits, they turned off high-bandwidth features in Wimba such as video conferencing, except briefly. They also encouraged participants to congregate around a single Internet connection where possible.

All in all, the event went off without a hitch, and Fedak is planning another Wimba online presentation in June, this one on avian flu. With luck, he added, the subject matter won't be quite as timely.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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