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Science & Space

Remote medicine on frontier of space

By Michael Coren

NASA science Officer Peggy Whitson with the ultrasound equipment on the International Space Station.
NASA science officer Peggy Whitson uses the ultrasound equipment on the international space station.
Medical Research
Space Exploration
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

(CNN) -- NASA's latest experiment with health care may benefit Earth-bound patients as much as astronauts -- and space researchers couldn't be happier.

A trial on the international space station is using ultrasound to look for injuries inside the body during spaceflight.

The ultrasound probe creates a digital image of the body that is sent electronically to doctors who can diagnose such things as heart problems, collapsed lungs, muscle loss and abdominal conditions.

As NASA looks ahead to a manned mission to Mars and extended sojourns in space, the agency is embracing remote medicine -- also known as telehealth -- to protect its astronauts while meeting increasingly tight budgets.

"We need the most bang for our buck to protect and care for the astronauts," said Victor Snyder, chief of clinical research program at NASA.

Although astronauts are receiving cutting-edge care, the technology promises to have a far greater impact closer to home.

Telehealth technology uses interactive devices, which can be anything from e-mail to satellite teleconferencing, to monitor patients. In the case of ultrasound, the technology allows researchers to expand the reach of diagnostic equipment by linking to ground-based medical facilities.

Snyder has high hopes that this technology will help revolutionize health care the same way the lunar missions did 30 years ago.

Technology developed for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo moon programs called telemetry, or long-distance monitoring of vital signs, ended up saving lives in intensive care units. The instruments use computers and body sensors to monitor heart rate, respiration and brain activity.

They became common in hospitals across the nation during the 1970s. Those advances helped send intensive care mortality rates plummeting from about 40 percent in the 1960s to only 7 percent a decade later, Snyder said.

The applications on Earth are already beginning.

Researchers recently installed one of the devices in the locker room of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. The technology also has been used by the U.S. armed forces to diagnose casualties on the front lines of in Iraq.

Dr. Scott Dulchavsky, chairman of surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, and principal investigator for the NASA initiative, said the experiments can give insights into how the equipment is used in an emergency -- whether it's a Mars mission or a hockey game.

"There are a lot of similarities between the space station and the Red Wings locker room," he said, adding that both places benefit from remote diagnosis when full medical help is unavailable.

That could prove particularly critical to NASA.

Under the exploration initiative announced by the White House in February, NASA expects to establish a lunar base and send a manned mission to Mars in the coming decades. Comprehensive medical care on those missions will be critical.

In preparation, Snyder said, the space agency would devote significant resources to maturing telehealth technology.

"For the Mars mission, [telemedicine] will be a major effort we intend to do," Snyder said. "We need to take telemedicine one step further."

Researchers said the technology has performed admirably so far.

"We have proven that we can turn it on and get the images we need into the hands of an expert," Dulchavsky said.

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