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Robotic medicine sounds far away

In science fiction movies, starship crews usually have their own doctors and a fully equipped medical centre. In real life, it is rare for a qualified doctor to be a member of an astronaut crew. It is even less likely that a full range of medical equipment will be on board a spacecraft. The same problems arise in remote areas on Earth, far from the nearest hospital.

One way to provide expert help to astronauts and far-away patients is to use tele-medicine. This involves using satellites to send images and other information to a medical expert. One example of the tele-medicine research supported by ESA is the ARTIS project. Its aim is to enable a doctor to examine the internal organs (such as the heart) of a distant patient.
This tele-medicine system is controlled by an expert with a small, hand-held probe. The probe is linked via satellite to an imaging machine called an echograph. When the doctor moves his probe, the same movements are carried out by the echograph next to the patient. High-frequency sound waves from the machine then produce images of the patient’s internal organs, which are sent back to the medical centre.

ARTIS is presently undergoing a two year study which may lead to its widespread introduction in everyday life. Indeed, many hospitals do not have radiologists or experts in ultrasound examinations at night or on week ends. It could eventually also help to improve healthcare during natural disasters and in the most remote places on the planet, e.g. oil rigs, cruise ships or villages far away from medical centres. Looking further ahead, it may one day provide a fast, reliable diagnosis for astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).

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