NASA experiment will give boost to telehealth-enabled ultrasound

Keep your eye on an obscure NASA experiment that was announced Friday. It could dramatically expand the reach of hospital telehealth programs.

The experiment, Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM), will train astronauts to use portable ultrasound equipment as radiologists on Earth guide them through performing an ultrasound exam.

It's exciting because it means non-physicians could be trained to perform ultrasound exams at remote clinics or other off-campus environments, Tommy Gray, interim CIO for Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center, Secaucus, N.J., tells FierceMobileHealthcare.

The training program will include visual cue cards, video training and other tools, according to NASA officials. "Time limitations forced us to put some tight brackets around what is absolutely required for training to be able to obtain a high-quality ultrasound image and to make some sense out of the image," Scott Dulchavsky, surgeon-in-chief at Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, which helped develop the program with NASA, said in a press release.

The program does require a radiologist to guide the user as he or she completes the exam, but the program is expected to demonstrate "that even non-physicians can produce diagnostic-quality ultrasound images using remote guidance," Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut and a member of Baylor College of Medicine's Center for Space Medicine, told CBSNews Detroit.

A number of questions remain for hospital CIOs, including what transmission method is delivering the high-quality images needed for ultrasound evaluation over distance, Jon Linkous, CEO for theAmerican Telemedicine Association tells FierceMobileHealthcare. Just announced is the specific device heading into space -- GE's Vivid q Cardiovascular Ultrasound system, which could earn a powerful market boost from its participation.

Vincent Grasso a surgeon, software architect, and former NASA project manager who participated in the space agency's telemedicine experiments on Mount Everest in the late 1990s, also spoke with FierceMobileHealthcare. We asked him about the earthbound value of in-space ultrasound experimentation. His take: The technology to transmit quality images is largely in place, and has been for several years.

One major value the NASA project brings to the table, however, is branding and marketing for telehealth, he says. With a host of other healthcare technologies emerging commercially from the space program -- heart defibrillators, cochlear implants and stereotactic biopsy equipment, just to name a few -- telehealth-enabled ultrasound could earn its stripes as a product and gain important buy-in from hospital IT execs.

We'll definitely keep tabs on this program as it evolves down here on humble Planet Earth. -- Sara