Telehealth surge: Armenia and NASA’s experience from the 80s

Telehealth surge: Armenia and NASA’s experience from the 80s

PanARMENIAN.Net - American doctor and researcher, Dr. Jeremy A. Greene has unveiled an article about how many hospitals have added telemedicine services in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic worldwide.

In the piece published in Boston Review, Dr. Greene mentions as an example the telemedicine space bridge that NASA organized after the devastating earthquake in Armenia in December of 1988.

The Spitak earthquake, in which an initial 7․0 tremor was followed only 4 minutes later by a brutal 5.8 aftershock between the cities of Gyumri (then Leninakan) and Vanadzor (Kinrovakan), immediately claimed more than 25,000 lives, and flattened all available medical and public health infrastructure for hundreds of miles.

Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was in Washington, D.C., for a state visit to promote “glasnost perestroika” with U.S. President Ronald Reagan when the quake struck. In the first Soviet request for aid from the United States since the beginning of the Cold War, he called on his American counterpart for help. The resulting effort, called Spacebridge, brought together Dr. Arnauld Nicogossian of NASA Life Sciences and Dr. Oleg Gazenko of the Soviet Union’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems in what would become the largest mobilization of telemedicine to date, built to meet the needs of a rapidly unfolding public health disaster,” Dr. Greene writes.

“Spacebridge used closed-circuit cameras to connect patients in need of expert medical advice in an under-resourced area to medical expertise at a distance,” the article reads.

“Over a 60-day period, NASA satellites connected 209 Armenian patients to specialists in burn management, urology, infectious disease, and PTSD in the United States. On the strength of this experience, NASA sponsored the first international conference on telemedicine and disaster medicine in Bethesda a few years later, leading to a subsequent Telemedicine Spacebridge to Russia (1993–1994), and a robust international collaboration in the field of disaster telehealth.”

Among the modern telemedicine tools are the numerous apps unveiled by governments, including Armenia, to fight the spread of the virus and detect Covid-19 symptoms as early as possible. Also, health authorities throughout the world offer hotlines for people to call in the event they develop coronavirus symptoms.

Jeremy A. Greene, MD, PhD, is William H. Welch Professor of Medicine and the History of Medicine and Director of Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He practices medicine at East Baltimore Medical Center.

Photo: MGH Archives
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