Ultrasound techniques developed by NASA to examine International Space Station crewmembers may soon find another use helping treat medical emergencies on Earth.
Non-physicians can readily learn the procedures. The procedures can provide an accurate diagnostic tool when coupled with Internet, telephone or wireless transmission of ultrasound images to remote experts. The technology was recently tested on members of the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League (NHL).
The probability of a crewmember developing a serious medical condition increases on long-duration missions. Although X-ray and computerized tomography (CT) scans are routinely used by doctors to diagnose medical conditions, on Earth they are not available on the Station due to weight and power requirements.
For these reasons, a 76-kilogram (168-pound) ultrasound machine is being evaluated on the Space Station to examine the medical condition of crewmembers. Ultrasound is a fast and safe technique that uses sound waves to gain information about medical conditions ranging from gallbladder disease to kidney stones. The ultrasound equipment in the Station's Human Research Facility is capable of high-resolution imaging in a wide range of applications, both research and diagnostic.
"I was impressed that even with the slight delay in transferring the video images to the ground, I was able to perform, with guidance from the ground team, imaging of my heart, carotid artery, kidney and bladder," said NASA ISS Science Officer Peggy Whitson, a member of the fifth Station crew. "The remote application of these methods has very positive implications for long-duration spaceflight, as well as potential use here on Earth."
Dr. Scott Dulchavsky, chair of the Department of Surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and principal investigator for the ultrasound experiment, leads a team of NASA scientists. They developed a technique involving remote guidance of a minimally trained operator to acquire ultrasound images. The images are transmitted by satellite to the ground where radiologists can read them.
"These ultrasound techniques will improve the chances of treating medical emergencies in space and on Earth," Dulchavsky said. "Although we use ultrasound every day in trauma centers to diagnose injuries of the abdomen, we are encouraged that ultrasound can be used in many more medical conditions."
Portable ultrasound machines remotely, guided by experts, can be used to extend medical care into challenging areas such as remote rural or military locations. The Detroit Red Wings recently conducted a test of these techniques to diagnose player injuries in the team's locker room rather than transporting athletes to Henry Ford Hospital for an X-ray, CT or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
A portable ultrasound device was placed in the team's locker room and connected to an ultrasound workstation at Henry Ford Hospital. A radiologist, serving as the remote expert, worked with the NASA team to guide the Red Wings' trainers performing ultrasound tests on players. The remote expert helped the trainers perform an ultrasound test on a shoulder, ankle, knee, hand and foot. The resulting high-quality images were transmitted to the hospital and could have been used to confirm or exclude injuries to these areas.
"This trial demonstrated ultrasound can be used to enhance athletic medical care with minimal training and cost," Dulchavsky said. "We are investigating satellite phone technology to allow the technique to be expanded for use on ambulances or at accident sites."
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