Harvard, Massachusetts General Using Web Conferencing to Share AIDS Research

Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital researchers are using the Saba online-collaboration platform to share information on AIDS research throughout the world.

Doctors, researchers and clinicians at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital are using the Saba Centra software as a service online-collaboration platform to hold online conferences with fellow doctors in areas such as South Africa, China and Nepal.

Massachusetts General is a teaching affiliate of the Harvard School of Medicine.

The Harvard University Center for AIDS Research and Massachusetts General formed HOPE (HIV Online Provider Education) in 2004 to allow HIV clinicians around the world to collaborate and share insight on how to treat the disease.

HOPE has held regular virtual conferences since then and currently uses the Saba Centra VOIP (voice over IP) application to meet bimonthly with overseas colleagues.

In addition to the United States, participating clinicians are located in the United Kingdom, Africa, India, China and the Dominican Republic.

HOPE aims to help those parts of the world increase training and education through the real-time Web interactive sessions.

The SAAS Saba platform runs in the cloud and is accessible on the Apple iPad or iPhone. The application features SSL encryption. Participants without a microphone are able to follow along using text chat.

For HOPE, Saba Centra provides the simplicity the organization needed for doctors to log in easily and quickly within 5 to 10 minutes to share their findings on AIDS research with other colleagues on the other side of the world, Rishabh Dev Phukan, clinicial research assistant for Massachusetts General and the program coordinator for HOPE, told eWEEK.

The organization keeps an online archive of past conferences so that doctors and researchers can access conferences they may have missed due to time differences. They can then follow up with questions.

"We needed something that wasn't very data intensive," Phukan said, noting the slow connectivity of colleagues in Third World countries such as South Africa.

A 15-second window in packet transmissions allows for problems in connections that may occur without losing the link altogether.

"If people have small gaps of connectivity, they're normally not phased out of a conference unless their Internet fails, which is really helpful since South Africa is not really reliable all the time," Phukan explained.

Due to the slow connections in various countries, adding video to the conferences has been difficult for participants. "If the speaker is based in South Africa, a lot of times we don't do it because we're afraid we're going to get kicked off their Internet," Phukan said.

Still, the video option is popular among colleagues. "A lot of the physicians really like that it's much easier to look on a screen and see someone talking when you're asking questions," he said.

And Saba Centra users often have a bigger audience than just one person on the other side, according to Phukan. "You can't always tell how many people are behind a username," he said.

The bimonthly conference grew out of a yearly course held in South Africa.

In the Web conferences, experts discuss topics that include transmission of HIV among new mothers and children and the neurological implications of HIV, Phukan said. The organization has also discussed with remote colleagues how to manage side effects in drugs as well as when to start treatment options such as antiretroviral therapy, which are drugs aimed at halting the replication of HIV strains in an infected patient.

"There's a pretty big disconnect between the drugs that are available in South Africa and the drugs available in the U.S.," Phukan said, while noting that some drugs in South Africa are no longer used in the United States.

"When HIV positive, there's a balance that plays out between your immune system and the virus and in what point do you want to start treatment," Phukan said. "The answer is always as early as possible."

With strains of HIV spreading in South Africa that haven't appeared in the United States since the '90s, researchers in the states are able to learn from their counterparts in that region on how to deal with these strains, he explained.

In fact, Massachusetts General and the Harvard Center for AIDS Research have been able to pool resources via the Saba Centra Web conferences with McCord Hospital in South Africa.

"Only now has South Africa been getting a lot more experienced in treating HIV. They see a lot more patients than we do here now," Phukan said. "So it's been kind of interesting-the dynamic, the give and take, how the dynamic has shifted."

More than 25 million people have died from AIDS in the last 25 years, according to the World Health Organization. In addition, 33.3 million people worldwide were living with the disease as of 2009, the organization reports. Within 33 countries, cases of HIV had fallen by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS).