Dialing for medical aid in space

Since the Expedition One launch in 2001, NASA’s Human Health and Performance team has been developing expertise in the provision of medical support to the crew staying in our universe’s most remote environment – space.

Every quarter, a new team of astronauts are being launched to the International Space Station (ISS), where they will be staying for six months and up to a year. While on board, they perform engineering tasks, R&D and upgrades. During this time, the zero gravity environment starts to decondition bones, muscles, fluid distribution and the immune system.

Telemedicine is the main way for medical care on the ISS. While doctors have always been communicating with crews on short missions to guide them through spaceflight health problems, today’s long exploration missions require space medicine to fulfill more than just minor illnesses. Telemedicine allows for preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic care throughout the months in space.

Planning for medical support of each mission

Medical care for each mission is planned by NASA’s ground medical team consisting of doctors, biomedical engineers (BMEs), nurses, imaging specialists, and psychologists. There is careful consideration of the mission type, flight duration, launch and landing modes, medical evacuation capabilities and time to medical care.

Crew medical training

All astronauts are trained to use the medical assets on board. Some astronauts undergo additional 40 hours of training to qualify as their crew’s medical officer.

Astronauts are trained to be familiar with medical procedures and emergency responses. They learn how to perform physical examinations and handle the most common problems such as motion sickness, skin irritations and back pain – most astronauts experience back pain because their spines stretches out upon arrival in orbit due to the absence of gravity.

During an emergency, the crew first rely on their training and procedure guidelines to address the problem. They then establish a teleconference with their doctors back on Earth to discuss the best course of action. Often, a medical specialist will be patched into the conference to assist with diagnosing or treatment before deciding whether an evacuation back to Earth is required.

Over launch cycles, a team of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists will periodically evaluate NASA’s procedures and medical kits, to bring them up to date with the most current methods and practices in both Earth and space medicine.

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