Telehealth Lessons from Space

July 7, 2016 by InTouch Health

Providing telehealth services to the International Space Station, 250 miles above the earth, circling the globe every 90 minutes, is about as “remote” as it can get –. That’s why the World Health Organization is using the lessons learned from telehealth in space to improve remote care in some of the world’s most underserved areas.

In a recent WHO bulletin, Dr. Alfred Papali concludes that medium-tech works nicely when high-tech isn’t available. The first responder in space is typically a crew member whose training is comparable to that of a paramedic – and there’s no advanced diagnostic equipment on board. Astronauts use a point-of-care ultrasound device to diagnose ailments, then seek the counsel of earth-bound physicians. Data transmission from space, however, isn’t continuous.

Papali notes that those same constraints are common in many impoverished places on earth. The WHO is already using the equivalent of paramedics to provide antiretroviral medications in sub-Saharan Africa. Plus it’s easy to get portable ultrasound devices into remote areas where it’s impossible to lug a CAT scan machine.

NASA has begun to address data transmission lagtime by providing astronauts with “virtual remote guidance” – a fancy name for pre-recorded instructional videos.

The WHO will soon use the same approach in Haiti, where caregivers will receive just-in-time instructions on how to perform endotracheal intubation and other difficult procedures.

Whether in space or Himalayas, some patients don’t have the luxury of getting transported to a fully equipped medical center. It would take 24 hours and millions of dollars to get a sick astronaut back to earth. Likewise, it’s usually impossible to airlift a patient from rural Nepal to a hospital in New Delhi. Providing the best available care on-site – aided by telehealth technology – can still be a lifesaving option.