When you get up and walk, your heart rate naturally increases a bit.

And enquiring minds can’t help but wonder what a heart does in the chest of an astronaut during a space walk.

Then there’s the associated excitement of seeing those beat-to-beat pulses being delivered to earth from outer space.

The latter of these heart-pumping experiences will be felt by Matthew Grubis at the Houston mission control center (MCC) over the next few weeks, as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA; Washington) flight surgeons take the distant pulse of shuttle astronauts during space walks using the heart monitoring and digital networking systems of GE Healthcare (UK).

Grubis, lead systems engineer of the Monitoring Solutions business of GE Healthcare, is the head project manager for the company’s earthbound hardware and software that will be used to track the pulses, electrocardiogram signals and other cardiac functions and fluctuations of astronauts when they venture outside the shuttle.

NASA flight surgeons will use the company’s systems to monitor this information in real-time throughout the Space Shuttle Discovery mission, set for launch yesterday but delayed because of a fuel gauge problem.

The sharing of real-time clinical information will allow all clinicians within the NASA surgeon network to remotely review and consult, as needed, on the astronauts’ health data. Besides trending this data during these dramatic, out-of-shuttle ventures, the data will be included in the astronauts’ official electronic medical records.

Still another benefit will be gained by GE Healthcare, since this application-distant experience will help expand on its monitoring capabilities, in more ways than one, Grubis told Medical Device Daily.

The GE system being used by NASA is the Apex Pro, Unity Net work and Central Station system that the company has been selling to hospitals for cardiac monitoring in more than 50 countries.

It is a system combination that is “typically, used in one geographic location,” said Grubis. However, for shuttle missions, “NASA took our network, typically isolated to a small region, and extended it around the world,” he says.

The result is a match-up with GE Healthcare’s push “to connect multiple hospitals together, in line with our plans for the future.”

And the system’s use in an earth-orbiting fashion fits also with the company’s real-time networking across time zones, since “it’s very important to keep all events on the same clock,” he adds.

Grubis says that NASA and GE Healthcare have had a partnering relationship in space missions “for awhile now.”

And he notes too that the space agency uses the company’s monitoring systems in an “off-the-shelf” way rather than requiring a variety of reengineering or complex re-adjustements to fit the environment of space.

“From our standpoint, one of [NASA’s] golden rules is to not cause a vendor to change a design,” Grubis says. “The Apex Pro and Central Station [used in the space walk monitoring] is as we sell today – the same algorithms for detecting heart anomalies,” as well as other standard cardiac data.

Besides saving time, this strategy enables the agency “to keep up-to-date with newer products as we make improvements to the system,” he says.

During space walks, astronaut vital signs are picked up by space suit sensors and antennae supplied by NASA, with the data then transmitted to the MCC, where it is collected, analyzed and presented via the GE hardware and software.

Omar Ishrak, president and CEO of Clinical Systems for GE Healthcare, said that this application of the company’s capabilities “illustrates the value and potential of telemedicine for physicians. Using GE’s state-of-the-art patient monitoring software, physicians will be able to effectively read, monitor, and analyze patient information from many miles away.”

Back on firm planetary soil, he says, “our clinical monitoring technologies are already enhancing health and patient care by enabling clinicians to access off-site databases, linking clinics or physicians’ offices to central hospitals, and transmitting diagnostic images for remote examination.”

GE’s clinical monitoring technologies previously have been used by NASA to simulate potential medical situations in space more accurately, allowing flight surgeons to better prepare for dealing with medical emergencies in that austere and unforgiving environment.

In the future, approved flight physicians throughout the world – across all time zones – will be able to monitor their own country’s astronauts’ health continuously during space missions using this and related systems, according to GE.

“We’re continuing our working relationship with NASA to identify potential medical devices and systems for future use on the International Space Station, and possible use on Lunar or Mars-based missions,” says Ishrak.

And Grubis calls the current mission and the opportunity for watching this technology being used in deep space “exciting” – with perhaps an engineer’s typical penchant for understatement.

“This,” he adds, “is definitely a unique experience.

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