Telemedicine in Space?
Telemedicine, or the remote monitoring, diagnosing, and treatment of patients using telecommunication technologies, was developed, first used, and fully trusted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, to care for astronauts in space. Astronauts face severe physical challenges in the vacuum of space, including radiation exposure, physiological adaptation to microgravity, extreme temperatures, and the rigors of leaving and re-entering our planetary atmosphere.
Aerospace medicine has always been telemedicine. NASA relied on telemedicine to facilitate the medical supervision and administration of care to astronauts throughout the moon landing mission, during which astronaut James Irwin famously suffered from heart trouble due to a previously undiagnosed heart rate condition called bigeminy. Fortunately, his doctors back on Earth were able to use telemedicine to accurately diagnose his condition and determine that he would be safe until his return.
Currently the International Space Station, or ISS, is serving as an ideal opportunity for scientists to develop and test cutting-edge telemedical technologies. Telemedicine gives physicians the ability to practice preventive medicine, run diagnostics, and even offer therapeutic care during long space flights.
Because astronauts on the ISS are living and working in a zero-gravity environment, they require close medical supervision. The short-term effects of zero gravity have been studied as previously mentioned, so scientists and physicians are aware that they must carefully supervise each astronaut as they experience changes to their bones, muscles, blood volume, and even possibly heart function. It’s at least possible that as scientists use telemedicine to study astronauts living in space long-term, they will discover other health complications that will need to be addressed.
Of course, as space flight technologies improve, astronauts will require medical care while they are millions of miles away from our home planet Earth. Thus, telemedicine will need to be likewise expanded. Caring for human beings as they venture beyond our planet’s orbit will present brand new challenges.
Currently, there is a lot of public interest in--and private effort being exerted toward--human beings being able to survive the journey to Mars. For example, Elon Musk’s SpaceEx company has announced that they will be attempting to launch the first unmanned Mars expedition as soon as 2020. Eventually, SpaceEx hopes to send two human astronauts to Mars. At that time, telemedicine will once again be the primary means by which the two SpaceEx astronauts will receive medical care. Imagine the absolute confidence SpaceEx will have in their telemedical systems; the success of their incredibly expensive endeavor could end up depending on medical imaging transmission!
The reason developments in telemedicine for space are viable for the private sector to research and create is because they will subsequently be viable for use in healthcare here on Earth. This means that soon we will see even more incredible telemedicine opportunities in our daily lives; space age technology will continue to serve us in our own homes in ever more exciting ways, but perhaps none more tangibly important than telemedicine.