Astronauts living in the International Space Station have something in common with people living in rural and remote areas of developing countries: They’re not very close to hospitals.
Both groups can benefit from telemedicine, a type of medical care designed to overcome the problem of distance between patients and doctors.
Telemedicine had some of its earliest roots with NASA and the Soviet space agency, before any humans went to space. Scientists then didn’t know if astronauts outside of Earth’s gravity would have problems with their blood flow or breathing, so they sent animals to space and had data on their vital signs beamed back to Earth.
Today, in addition to astronauts, people on Earth have begun to use telemedicine to improve the quality of health care available to people who can’t walk into an urgent care clinic.
Telemedicine is helpful for getting an expert’s eyes on data about the health of a patient who’s nowhere near them. For example, if a hospital has imaging equipment but no specialist who can read the images, a patient’s X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds or MRIs can be sent to a doctor around the world. Or, a doctor can consult with another doctor for a second opinion.
But if there is no doctor to be had, a telemedicine kit developed for astronauts by the French space agency can help determine if a patient should be taken to a hospital in a larger city. The kit includes a computer, satellite phone, microscope, electrocardiogram, and a digital camera to collect information about a patient’s health and transmit it to a medical professional at the hospital in question, who then can decide whether it’s necessary for the patient to make the trip for care. The system is already in use in French Guyana, according to a report by the European Space Policy Institute.
“All of these telemedicine applications have been made possible at one time or another by space-based capabilities,” the report says.
Even if space programs weren’t to thank for developing some of the hardware used in telemedicine, satellites in space make it possible for people in one place to exchange information wirelessly with others far away.
One recent commentary in The Lancet Infectious Diseases detailed how the use of space technology, particularly satellite imagery, was essential to optimising the aid response in the recent Ebola outbreak.
One way or another, technology originally intended for astronauts is helping people on Earth get connected to vitally necessary health care.
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