Space-Tech and Healthcare: A Vitalizing Synergy
Advancements in space tech for a long time now have had trickle-down benefits for society. For example, technology spinoffs from the Indian space programme include flame-proof coatings (fire safety), Aerogel - Thermal wear for soldiers (for protection from extreme cold weather), distress alert systems and search and rescue beacons have come in handy in the area of disaster management. In the area of healthcare, cost-effective developments like artificial limbs, artificial jawbones, ultrasound, left ventricular assist devices and ventilators have significantly improved the efficiency of the medical infrastructure.
To further leverage space technology and increase the competence of healthcare in India, the Association of Healthcare Providers (India) (AHPI), Indian Society of Critical Care Medicine (ISCCM), Society for Emergency Medicine India (SEMI), and the Consortium of Accredited Healthcare Organisations (CAHO), approached ISRO in 2016 to learn the best practices in its quality domain and implement them in their emergency care and critical care departments "for reducing mortality rates." Keen interest has also been shown by health care professionals in learning about how ISRO is planning to handle the interplay among Man, Machine and Environment in the Human Space flight programmes and about the medical equipment developed by ISRO.
As a result, pilot studies were conducted in Dr Mehta's hospital, Chennai and Narayana Health City, Bangalore, based on the learnings from ISRO, which seem to have yielded positive results. According to the statements by ISRO, it plans to implement the health-QUEST (Quality Upgradation Enabled through Space Technology) studies in 11 selected hospitals across the country to derive wider benefit from such knowledge transfer and further improve the way the services are provided at these departments. The Directorate of Safety Reliability and Quality (DSRQ), ISRO, also organised a HEALTH-QUEST event at ISRO headquarters on 26th May 2022. DSRQ Director Dr Brinda V Chairman along with senior officials from the Association of Health Care Providers India (AHPI), and the Society for Emergency Medicine in India (SEMI) were among the keynote speakers.
The Expert Group on Space and Global Health identified key technological domains, such as remote sensing, GNSS/GIS, satellite communications and human space flight, along with a range of subdomains that emerged with these cross-domain applications of space technologies, which either are applied or could be applied to foster global health.
One of the most common applications of space-tech in healthcare is telemedicine and telehealth. In India, 68 per cent of the population resides in rural areas where the health care services are still improving, and telemedicine can close the gap by overcoming distance barriers. The Mobile Telemedicine units of ISRO cover the areas of Ophthalmology, Cardiology, Radiology, Diabetology, Mammography, General medicine, and Women and Child healthcare. Although the number of these units is as limited to 18 and only 386 hospitals have been connected as of now, ISRO has the potential to expand its existing Telemedicine Network not only within India but also across its immediate and extended neighbourhood in Asia by leveraging on the existing coverage of INSAT and GSAT networks. Additionally, Tele-oncology (oncology applications of medical telecommunications, including pathology, radiology, and other related disciplines) has the potential to enhance both access to and the quality of clinical cancer care as well as education and training. The Ministry of Health in the Government of India has also taken up projects like Integrated Disease Surveillance Project (IDSP), National Rural Telemedicine Network, National Medical College Network, and the Digital Medical Library Network to propel this cause.
Other areas of potential synergies between ISRO and medical infrastructure in India can be inspired by the following global advancements:
- Medical technology stemming from space station robotics designed for ISS will enter clinical trials for use in the early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer by providing increased access, precision and dexterity resulting in highly accurate and minimally invasive procedures.
- The astronauts breathe into a specially developed, lightweight, easy to use and accurate instrument that measures nitric oxide levels which is now also helping asthmatics and offering a quick and cheap way to diagnose lung problems.
- A type of cold plasma could potentially be used for disinfecting wounds, helping them heal faster, and even fighting cancer. Complex plasma research has been taking place onboard the ISS since 2001. In more than 3,500 examples in several clinical trials, physicians found plasmas can disinfect chronic wounds and help wounds heal faster.
- Geospatial data and satellite imagery are becoming important tools for infectious disease modelling. In the future, satellites could be used to predict where these viruses are likely to emerge, measure the effects they may have on different regions and detect communities that could be vulnerable to infection in unmapped areas by automatically identifying buildings and roads.
- Isolation and developing techniques used by astronauts to cope with isolation can help preserve the mental health of individuals going through social distancing and isolation, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
Hence, the amalgamation of space-tech with healthcare is expected to deliver state-of-the-art facilities with wider accessibility and scalable implementation resulting in a huge overhaul of the Indian and global medical ecosystem.
This has been co-authored by Karishma Sharma and Cherishi Maheshwari.