Long-distance ultrasound: made for astronauts, now reaching hospitals
Patients in regional French hospitals are now being examined remotely using long-distance ultrasound technology that was originally developed for astronauts in space.
“Smaller secondary hospitals do not necessarily have expert radiologists available on site,” explains ESA biomedical engineer Arnaud Runge. “This in the past has led to problems, with for instance, pregnant women having to travel hundreds of kilometres for an examination.
“However one small company is reusing the knowledge gained during past ESA telemedicine projects to market a remote-controlled ultrasound system allowing an expert radiologist to perform exams on patients from hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away.
“This TESSA (Tele-Echography for ESA) technology was originally developed over a series of ESA projects with the intent to support astronauts in orbit.
“But whether for Earth- or space-based patients, the abiding principle of telemedicine is the same: it is much easier and cheaper to move medical data around than it is to move people.”
AdEchoTech, based in Vendôme in central France, has marketed this ‘tele-echography’ system to more than 15 hospitals and health institutes in France and abroad, with others participating in trials.
An assistant simply holds the device against the patient and the ultrasound expert can move the probe as if present in the examination room. They control the device in real time using a joystick, based on ultrasound imagery relayed back.
“Our system is so simple that the operator at the side of the patient does not need to have any specific medical knowledge to assist the remote radiologist during the exam,” says Nicolas Lefebvre, Managing Director of AdEchoTech.
“The operator can also be guided via audio-visual link with the doctor, additionally allowing the patient to establish direct contact.”
The commercial product, fully certified for medical operations, is a follow-on from several ESA-funded projects.
“Ultrasound is a medical area we have specifically targeted for many years, as early as 2003,” adds Arnaud. “It is an extremely versatile diagnostic tool, compact and non-invasive, but needs highly-trained operators for the best results.
“There is an ultrasound device on board the International Space Station today, but it requires an entire team of experts down on the ground to precisely instruct astronauts in its operation.
“For instance, there is a strong need to be able to image the hearts of astronauts – the characteristics and performance of the cardiovascular system undergo changes in prolonged microgravity. A very interesting but specific angle –the ‘acquisition window’ – is needed to image the heart clearly but is hard to reach because of the ribs.
“The TESSA system developed by AdEchoTech makes such specialised tele-echocardiography feasible on a reliable basis.”
“The collaboration with ESA has been very important for us,” says Dr Lefebvre. “In particular, the TESSA project also helped us to speed up the R&D effort on our second-generation tele-echography system.”
ESA meanwhile is currently looking into a follow-on project with the company to design a more lightweight and streamlined version of the system’s robotic arm, potentially suitable for launch into orbit, which would also broaden terrestrial market opportunities.
The technology would similarly be suitable for use in any remote location – from cruise ships to prisons – using either internet or satellite links.
ESA recently completed a trial with four European defence ministries, making the technology available to military garrisons based in Lebanon and Afghanistan. The tele-echography technology has also been tested successfully on oil platforms off West Africa and inland clinics in French Guiana.