October 2005: An earthquake devastates rural Pakistan. Winter quickly descends on the mountainous region, leaving many victims without shelter in the bitter cold.
In early January, Dr. Azhar Rafiq, a researcher and physician for a NASA Research Partnership Center in Virginia, returns to his homeland to help. He brings with him medical monitoring technology — known as “telemedicine” — developed for the space program.
Rafiq and his colleague, Dr. Ronald Merrell, spent seven days in Pakistan, the culmination of a months-long distance-learning course they conducted with medical students there. During their trip, they spoke to medical students about telemedicine work and traveled directly into the disaster zone to demonstrate the technology.
The trip proved that the benefits of telemedicine are universal.
For Rafiq, it was a bittersweet return to his homeland. He was anxious to help those in his native country, yet saddened by the devastation. But certain that telemedicine would have helped in the recent earthquake, he knew it was important for him to go.
“With no mechanism for information-gathering or sharing, treatment teams were in a position of responding as patients entered the door,” he said. “Helicopters brought in 20 to 30 patients at a time, with little or no screening. All the area hospitals soon were overflowing. With telemedicine, they could have anticipated the level of injuries en route to the hospital.”
Rafiq and Merrell are researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Informatics and Technology Application Consortium in Richmond. Recognized experts in telemedicine, they were invited by the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center in Fort Detrick, Md., to complete the telemedicine training program.
Their journey actually began months before with online and videoconference lectures to 30 students at the Rawalpindi Medical College based at the Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi, a region hard-hit by the quake. Using the NASA-sponsored technology, they helped diagnose injuries, communicate treatment needs to local health care workers and demonstrate how telemedicine equipment can improve health care.
For the visiting physicians, seeing the transition from research to reality proved gratifying. “All the time in the lab paid off,” said Merrell, director of the medical consortium. “By managing medical information, our systems were designed to help save lives in remote locations of any kind. It was heartening to see the technology put to good use on Earth.”
In space, telemedicine technology assists astronauts with checking, diagnosing and communicating health issues – a critical need when family physicians are a spacecraft-ride away. On Earth, telemedicine offers the promise of treating patients living long distances from hospitals or impacted by massive medical emergencies that overwhelm the health care system.
In Pakistan, doctors faced both types of challenges. Even months after the October 2005 earthquake left 3.5 million homeless, the devastation remained unimaginable, with 80,000 people dead and countless others injured.
The physicians hope to see the technology used not just in emergency situations, but in everyday lives. Rural health-care providers, for example, could use monitoring and videoconferencing technology to consult and submit diagnostic information to experts at regional hospitals. “A doctor from a town two hours away saw the benefit of providing higher quality care without the discomfort and cost of traveling to see a physician,” Rafiq explained, adding that the technology can help diagnose and treat people with conditions ranging from heart disease to diabetes.
Managed by the Space Partnership Development program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the Medical Informatics and Technology Application Consortium designs a wide array of medical-management instruments, from handheld diagnostic tools to medical-monitoring apparel. It is one of 11 research centers managed by NASA’s Space Partnership Development Program.