Human biology and medicine

Remote medicine

Video transcript

Australian Antarctic Division Chief Medical Officer Dr Jeff Ayton:

So the polar medicine unit is the unit in the Australian Antarctic Division that looks after the health and well-being of people in Australia's Antarctic program, in the Antarctic. So, in Antarctica and Macquarie Island, and ships and planes in between.

We employ generalist doctors, who are generally rural or remote general practitioners from Australia, and we train them and add additional skills to their scope of practice; like, there's some surgery, I believe they undertake an anaesthetic.

The expeditioners are well-screened, and they are generally well and healthy, but when things go wrong, things can go really wrong.

Any medical evacuation is challenging in Antarctica, and may only be possible over summer. Without hope of winter evacuation, it's an extreme environment. We've got isolated doctors down there, who are isolated for up to nine months of the year, which is very challenging. They're on their own, supported by lay-surgical assistance and a telemedicine link back to Kingston in Hobart, Tasmania. 

[end transcript]

Station doctor using a diagnostic ultrasound machine
Station doctor using a diagnostic ultrasound machine (Photo: Glenn Browning)
The prime responsibility of the Antarctic doctor is health care, while medical research is a part-time occupation. The support of Antarctic expeditioners over the past 50 years has enabled doctors to conduct a multidisciplinary research program on this unique population, arguably the most isolated on Earth, living as transient visitors in a harsh environment. Research findings may have important long-term health implications.

Particular emphasis has been placed on studies that facilitate living and working in Antarctica such as:

  • health and behavioural studies
  • thermal adaptation
  • nutrition
  • epidemiology
  • cardiovascular studies
  • photobiology
  • diving medicine

Antarctic human biological research has made a major contribution to the knowledge of human adaptation in Antarctica. It suggests personnel undergo physiological and psychological changes in response to the Antarctic conditions. However no specific Antarctic disease has been found.

Research has demonstrated a lowered responsiveness of the immune system under the isolation and confinement of the Antarctic winter, with more precise laboratory studies over the past 10 years showing that 30 percent of those working in Antarctica have altered immune responses. Collaborative research continues with universities and research institutions in Australia and the United States of America. These studies include mechanisms for changing immunity, and the influence of factors such as stress and other psychological influences. Research on viral reactivation in humans is also underway. The work has potential value for health care on long duration space flights.

For more information, contact the Division and ask to be directed to the Polar Medicine Unit.

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