International Space Station (ISS) orbits the Earth every 90 minutes at the altitude of 250 miles or 400 kilometers. The team of astronauts that stays at the ISS hails from vivid fields specializing in different domains like engineering, payload, however, there is no doctor onboard. What do astronauts do when they get sick or want medical help when aboard ISS? The answer is, they have stocked of some emergency medical supplies that can be used. They can use help from a surgeon based on Earth or telemedicine can be of great help in such condition.
According to Dr. Shannan Moynihan who is the deputy chief of space and occupational medicine at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, telemedicine is the only way out to get help during a medical emergency. Crew members and astronauts who will be sent to the ISS are given some medical training prior to their launch, however, the medical training is basically packed between rigorous training schedule to prepare for the microgravity of space and other agents. When any astronaut needs help, they can use a live video link to call flight surgeon on Earth and seek assistance.
Moynihan further stated that they receive calls from the ISS for bruises, bumps, cuts, lacerations, etc after which, the surgeon on-call assists the astronauts to take care of the situation. At 250 miles up in the space, microgravity can cause havoc with the astronaut’s fluid balances and vestibular systems. It also enhances the risk of developing CO2 poisoning and other complications. Since space agencies recently started sending astronauts for a longer duration of six months to a year, it has triggered different medical mysteries which are yet to be fixed.
Moynihan said that they have been noticing visual and structural changes in the eyes of astronauts over a period of 8 to 10 years. This has triggered NASA to include extensive telemedicine in such instances. The change in the structural and visual appearance of the eyes has been termed as ‘Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS). The team is presently preparing to figure out a way to train astronauts to use optical tests on themselves to evaluate such complications.
The International Space Station has a modified GE Vivid ultrasound machine mounted since 2002 that has been modified to fit the bill of working in space. It doubles as the sole medical instrument to take an ultrasound of the astronauts which is what helps the surgeon on-call to prescribe medicines or state things to look after to cure it. The ultrasound machine onboard has a dedicated uplink that delivers data fed by the astronauts to the ground control. Unlike ordinary ultrasound machines that use ultrasound gel, the machine on ISS can use water to perform its functions too. To save valuable time and efforts, researchers at NASA has developed an intuitive screen for telemedicine that lets astronauts from any field and country to perform the task as mentioned by the surgeon on-call.
NASA has been improving its telemedicine capability. However, it does have its constraints such as, as we move further in the space, the time consumed by telecommunication increases. For instance, it would take around 18 to 20 minutes for a audio to reach Earth from Mars which is the total time required for a one-way communication. This is the reason why the researchers will have to find a way out to create efficient and useful telemedicine kit as well as make the astronauts think out of the box and work autonomously in case of disconnection from surgeon on-call or delay in communication, etc.