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Rural doctor goes to infinity and beyond with space medicine training

Rural doctor goes to infinity and beyond with space medicine training

Rural doctor goes to infinity and beyond with space medicine training

Updated 8 January 2016, 20:40 AEDT

Central Queensland has gone to infinity and beyond by becoming home to one of the few Australian doctors trained in space medicine.

Emerald-based GP and Australian Rural Doctors Association president Ewen McPhee travelled more than 2,000 kilometres to Adelaide to participate in an Australian-first course in space medicine.

The Humans in Space course, run by The Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine, included speakers from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, focusing on the physiological, medical, emotional and psychological challenges that humans faced in space.

"It's a course that looks at the difficulties humans have when they move into extreme environments, especially space," Dr McPhee said.

"It also looks at how people can survive for long periods in space, for things like a trip to Mars."

While the thought of space travel for leisure still seems a long way off, Dr McPhee believed it was vital for the medical profession to support people who wanted or needed to go into space.

"We know that low gravity affects your bone density, muscle mass and your heart function. It's tricky to maintain a relatively normal fitness level in those environments so that people can operate when they get to other end," he said.

"If in the future we look at missions to other planets, we need people to be able to function and to do their job."

Astronauts pay a price for time out of this world

One space guru presenting at the course was Dr Robert Thirsk, chancellor of the University of Calgary and a former Canadian astronaut.

Dr Thirsk became obsessed with space travel in his early school years after a teacher put on a broadcast of an American astronaut mission into space.

"Many years later, after I'd had some engineering and medical training, I was in a doctors' lounge relaxing and I saw a newspaper with a huge ad in it saying Canada was ready to start an astronaut program, and this grade three dream came back to me," Dr Thirsk said.

"I applied and I was very, very fortunate to finally be accepted."

After years of medical preparation, anti-gravity training, and Russian language lessons — handy for work on the International Space Station — Dr Thirsk launched into space.

At 204 days, he still holds the Canadian record for the most time spent in space.

Evidently, Dr Thirsk is familiar with the health challenges associated with space travel.

While he said many of the effects of weightlessness on the human body — such as loss of muscle mass and bone calcium content — were reversible, he still had concerns of the effects of space travel on health.

"Things that are not reversible are things that are due to radiation," Dr Thirsk said.

"I am concerned in the future about potentially developing cataracts or developing leukaemia or thyroid cancer."

Space medicine in central Queensland

While Dr McPhee is realistic about the lack of demand for a space doctor in regional Queensland, he said the skills learnt at the course would be useful in other fields.

"This topic also applies to a lot of other extreme environments as well, including climbers, with people travelling to remote environments like Antarctica, and our pilots and our air crew that travel at high altitude every day," he said.

"Aviation is a very important part of rural practice, whether it's dealing with helicopter pilots or helicopter mustering, or whether it's agricultural pilots or airline pilots — it's an important part of rural medicine and rural aviation."

Dr Thirsk agreed there were similarities between taking care of astronauts in space and medicine on Earth.

"Australia is a country with large geographical frontiers and a sparse population, so a lot of the techniques that we use to treat remote astronauts are applicable to people that live in 6,000-population towns," he said.

"Using satellites to do telehealth medical consultations, and being able to help the geriatric citizens whose muscles and bones are becoming atrophied, space medicine techniques can be applied."

Dr McPhee said he was excited to apply the skills from the course within regional Queensland, and was optimistic about taking it even further.

"The human race is always looking outwards and looking yonder, and certainly if we go by movies and media, we're always dreaming of other planets and exploration. To quote Star Trek: it is the final frontier."