From Space Missions to Pandemic Monitoring: Remote Healthcare Advances
Space is not just the final frontier but the frontline for advances in healthcare that are improving lives both on and off-world.
This year, we have increased attention on medical breakthroughs that could help contain and mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Given the reality of the risks in-person, though, it doesn’t make sense to set up an in-person conference.
A brief Zoom meeting is not up to the task of all that has to be covered, so this fall AdvaMed organized The Virtual MedTech Conference. Among the on-demand presentations was one entitled “Astronaut Reveals Next Generation Space Health Technologies with Meaningful Earth Applications."
The benefits of innovation made for the space program are regularly documented by NASA, which put together a shortlist of Health and Medicine Spinoffs, selected from out of over 1700 innovations on record since 1976. It drives home the point that “NASA programs are also resulting in spinoffs that improve fitness, treat disease, and save lives.”
The Canadian Connection
So we already know that solutions developed for space travel and extended stays on the International Space Station (ISS) lead to breakthroughs that benefit the earthbound. But what we didn’t necessarily know is that Canada plays a role.
The presentation involved a panel of experts who discussed recent technological advances in healthcare and telehealth, and their applications in space and on earth. They also brought to light the role Canada is playing in these advances, working with the Canadian Space Agency and the research and development of the National Research Council Canada,
Planets and Pandemics
Teodor Veres, Director of Research and Development, National Research Council Canada spoke about the connection between the needs of healthcare for astronauts and for people on earth dealing with COVID-19. Emerging tech on the frontline is essential both for missions to Mars and for treating people during a pandemic.
According to Veres, the pandemic highlights the need for care that is not just affordable but accessible and deployable outside of hospitals. Among the innovations that make that a reality is the lab-on-a-chip systems.
Portability and rapid results are key here. By deploying centrifugal force, they can separate and analyze microfluidics features in micron size.
The beauty of that is that you can have “one piece of hardware with many functions,” he observed. Such biochemical analysis can be used for blood analytics, DNA sequencing, genetics, and more.
In this way, diagnostics for space are the same as those needed for people in remote locations. It’s necessary to obtain bodily fluids and analyze them without having the patient make the trip in to a lab. The lab-on-a-chip system solves that problem, making it possible to provide a medical diagnosis remotely.
The Modern Way to Monitor
Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, the CEO of Hexoskin, spoke about why hospital monitoring doesn’t cut it in space or for people who have chronic conditions that require constant checks on their vital signs. The shirts they produce for frictionless constant monitoring offer many advantages over taped-on electrodes that keep a person tethered.
Over 10,000 Hexoskin shirts units have been shipped to patients all around the globe, and several more have made it to space. Astronauts who wear them on the International Space Station can be monitored on a constant basis for vital signs like heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, etc., without having to be burdened with anything that can impede their functionality for their assigned tasks.
The same technology is helpful to monitor patients who have to stay home during the pandemic, he observed. Certainly, people who are high risk need to avoid coming in contact with others as much as possible.
Wearables for Telehealth
Fournier recounts that before the advance of having the requisite sensors built into a shirt, monitoring vital signs at home required patients to use the tools that had been designed for hospital settings. That never worked out well.
Even with the best intentions to keep it up, patients would find them so burdensome to use that they would quit within days or weeks. “We need better tools,” he asserted.
As it’s worn all day, the smart garment delivers more vital data than a traditional EKG machine to which someone has to be connected for a short while. It is also easy to set up for patients who can usually put it on or off themselves or with the help of their caregiver. No nurses have to be involved, and they don’t need to have to deal with replacing electrodes and adhesives or having the bulk of a device on them.
Powered by AI
The smart shirt is really the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It’s what you see, but what powers it is what you don’t— an extensive software system that takes in huge amounts of data and filters through it to deliver only the relevant parts.
“It’s very important to automate these tasks,” Fournier explained because the devices generate too much data to be reviewed by a human. The clinicians rely on the tools to extract just what they need to know.
Fournier mentioned that many patients have conditions that require regular monitoring and that would entail frequent hospital visits. However, in many states under lockdown in the United States, people without coronavirus were either barred from hospitals or chose to stay away out of fear of contracting the virus there.
Isolation kills, literally. Fournier pointed out that over the past six months there were over 50 thousand additional extra deaths on top of the COVID ones in the United States, mostly due to cardiovascular diseases and dementia.
The solution for such a situation is the same one used by the astronauts who cannot pop over to earth each time they need something checked out: a tool to connect with providers through telehealth.
The application of such technology for the treatment of COVID-19 in the Hexoskin program designed for Canada, the US, and the UK, is to achieve the following objectives:
- Monitor recovering patients at home.
- Avoid “failure to treat” deaths.
- Collect data for research (vitals, symptoms questionnaires).
- Predict patient trajectory with AI.
Remote Health Solutions are Critical
David Saint-Jacques, a Canadian astronaut who spent the bulk of a year on the ISS described the extra challenges that astronauts spending prolonged periods away from Earth will have to face. When his mission on the space station ended, a return to earth didn’t mean a return to normal life right away.
He explained that when he came back to earth, he couldn’t even walk on his own power due to the crushing effect he felt from gravity after so long in space. He needed to be carried at first; readjusting over time.
However, now there are planned missions to Mars where astronauts will face a difficult environment without the usual amenities and support systems available on earth. “Remote and autonomous healthcare become mission critical,” he insisted.
They rely on having access to biodiagnostics, as well AI-powered decision-making to make that happen. He finds a parallel to that in those who are too far away to get to healthcare professionals on earth, as well.
“Before I was an astronaut, I was a physician in a remote area,” he said. He found the challenge similar, the “same problem with potentially the same solution.”
In fact, “remote doesn’t have to be in the Arctic,” he explained. Any situation that cuts people off from direct contact, whether it’s the pandemic or being generally home-bound or in a dangerous area or military zone, all carry the same challenge to healthcare.
The good news is that there are solutions already in place and more in the works for better health on space missions and on earth.