Antarctic team boosts medical care with 3D ultrasound

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Australia’s Antarctic research stations, cut off for nine months of the year, are taking lessons learned from space to try to improve the diagnosis and treatment of staff remotely.

Australia’s Antarctic Division operates some of the world’s most remote outposts and assignments on the icy, blizzard-prone continent have been likened to working on a space mission.

Dealing with a medical emergency or trying to make a complex diagnosis has always been a challenge and during the long winter months of isolation evacuation is impossible, leaving station doctors to treat all manner of illnesses.

To boost medical care, the division and the Royal Perth Hospital in Western Australia are developing a set of guidelines that would allow staff with minimal medical training to use newly developed 3D diagnostic ultrasound.

“This the first study that involves 3D or ultrasonic volume imaging in extreme medicine,” project member Marilyn Zelesco, a sonographer at Royal Perth Hospital, told Reuters. Extreme medicine is conducted in very remote locations.

The idea is for the images to be stored and then forwarded to specialists for analysis, aiming to free up the outpost doctor and provide an extra level of medical care.

“It’s not possible to train a generalist doctor in all facets of medical care, diagnostic care where you would normally have a whole team of specialists who would conduct expert investigations,” Jeff Ayton, the division’s chief medical officer, told Reuters.

On Saturday, a doctor at Australia’s Mawson research station in Antarctica demonstrated the new 3D equipment for the first time in a live cross to Ayton, who was attending an international space medicine gathering in Houston, Texas.

Traditionally, ultrasound requires trained sonographers to operate and interpret the images but it was not possible to employ such experts at the division’s research stations. On space missions there is even less room.

“In space you have the challenges of isolation and minimally trained medical and non-medical personnel,” Ayton said.

“In an emergency situation that is a great advantage if we can fetch good diagnostic-quality images quickly and send them off to someone else for assessment. It frees up the generalist doctor in treating the patient.”

NASA already uses diagnostic ultrasound and two of the researchers on the division’s project, Zelesco and Rob Hart of the Royal Perth Hospital, have developed protocols for astronauts to use 2D ultrasound on the International Space Station.

Reporting by David Fogarty; Editing by Miral Fahmy