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Mar 26, 2018,  by Allianz Partners Business Insights

Telemedicine: How NASA doctors keep astronauts on the International Space Station in good health

There are no doctors or sophisticated medical equipment on the ISS, with the astronauts living on board treated by telemedicine when necessary...


For their medical care, the six astronauts who live on board the International Space Station (ISS) need to make use of telemedicine. Sending equipment up to the craft would be very costly and space is also limited. In the ISS, the international team therefore has only the bare minimum available, with any other needs being taken care of remotely.


Medical training before take-off


Before their departure, astronauts receive medical training and certain instructions, said Shannan Moynihan of NASA at the 2018 HIMSS (Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society) conference in Las Vegas (USA). Moynihan, who is head of health at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, added that due to the extent of the training programme which the astronauts follow before take-off, the time devoted to health issues was limited. This is why the first reaction of the occupants of the capsule should be to video-conference with a doctor back on Earth whenever necessary.


Bumps and bruises or more serious problems


The health issues the astronauts bring up are not always that different from what patients suffer from on terra firma. "They call us for bumps and bruises, little cuts and scratches. The main one is when a new astronaut (…) wants to fly like Superman through an access hatch and doesn’t quite aim correctly…!" Moynihan said.

Not all the aches and pains suffered by spacemen and women are as simple to diagnose and cure, however. NASA experts have noticed that astronauts returning from a long stay in the ISS had significant changes in their sight, due to neuro-ocular syndrome associated with space flight. Moynihan’s teams are currently prioritising increasing their understanding of this condition.


Ultrasound machine on the space station


For medical imaging, the astronauts only have an ultrasound machine which was installed on board the space station in 2002, so it is not possible to obtain an x-ray or an MRI in the ISS. This means that doctors back on Earth have to be a little more creative and get the most information they can using the available equipment.

The ultrasound machine has therefore been modified to work with water instead of gel and can be operated with very little training – circumstances which are already found in certain extreme conditions back on Earth, making the improvements devised by NASA applicable to more everyday situations.


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