NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center
Imagine diagnosing a sick patient in space - or halfway around the world.
Two new technologies in early development at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida could someday send real-time information about astronauts' heart and lung health to doctors on the ground. Compact and portable, both technologies have the potential to provide advanced telemedicine capabilities not only for NASA, but for doctors and patients on Earth.
"If you get sick up there, the doctor can't put a stethoscope on you, take a picture of you, or get your bloodwork analyzed," said Dr. David Tipton, NASA's chief medical officer at Kennedy.
"The doctor, who is on Earth, has to figure out what's wrong with you - in a place where he can't reach you - and then figure out how to treat you."
Still early in development, Electrical Impedance Tomography Technology (EITT) is designed to provide images allowing doctors to monitor a patient's airflow or blood flow. While tools such as X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound are well known, they don't work well in a space environment due to radiation, user training, size and power usage considerations. These same limitations exist in remote locations on Earth.
The EITT device is a belt of electrodes worn around the portion of the body to be imaged. Once placed on a patient, it sends its observations to a computer, which then converts that signal to a still image or even a stream of live data. This information can be sent from space to the ground, or from remote locations anywhere in the world.
Farther along in development is the Radio Frequency Impedance Interrogation (RFII) technology, which provides information about a patient's cardiac performance using low-power radio frequency. It's about the size of a cell phone and uses only 1/100th the power.
"It just lies flat on the subject's chest, and it gives an indication of cardiac performance: how well the heart's beating, how fast it's beating, and a number of other variables," explained Dr. Ken Cohen, a physiologist with InoMedic Health Applications at Kennedy. "A lot of these change in space and have a very big effect on astronaut physiology."
Because the RFII data can be monitored from a central location, multiple devices could be used to monitor several patients simultaneously, such as in a car accident with many injured victims.
"You put one of these on each person and you only need one or two people to monitor them," Tipton said. "The device can help point you to the individuals that need immediate care."
NASA and InoMedic Health Applications are working together to develop these technologies.
"I'm definitely excited about it," Cohen said. "It's technology development, and that's one of the things I think NASA is all about."