May 27, 2009 By Blake Harris
According to medical experts, determining who gets immediate medical attention at a disaster scene is pretty rudimentary stuff. Emergency responders bent over a victim, checking body temperature, heart rate, and muscle movement. Up close and personal, the entire process can take three to five minutes per person.
"Human nature is to pay attention to those who are screaming and bleeding, but someone with a less obvious internal injury may be the real top priority," explained Greg Price, director of S&T's Tech Solutions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate (DHS S&T). "In the case of large-scale triage, it is not always the squeaky wheel that needs the grease," he said in a recent news release.
Because time is the most precious resource in a crisis, every second shaved can be a lifesaver. With this in mind, Price's group wants to make a revolutionary leap forward in triage. "We thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be nice if a responder, fully clothed in an emergency suit, could have a technology to take vital signs quickly from five to 40 feet away?'" Price said.
In partnership with the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), Boeing and Washington University's School of Medicine in St. Louis, Price's group is now developing the Standoff Patient Triage Tool (SPTT), a device that classic Star Trek fans will recognize for its resemblance to the medical diagnostic tool known as the tricorder.
Like the tricorder, SPTT takes key physiological readings necessary to any diagnosis -- pulse, body temperature and respiration. It's triage at twenty paces.
The magic behind SPTT is a technology known as Laser Doppler Vibrometry, which has been used in aircraft and automotive components and landmine detection. When connected to a camera, the vibrometer can measure the velocity and displacement of vibrating objects. An algorithm then converts those data points into measurements emergency medical responders can use in their rapid assessment of a patient's critical medical conditions.
With the help of Washington University, researchers have found that best place to capture strong readings of vital signs is on the carotid artery, although strong signals have been obtained from the head, chest, abdomen and even a foot. Researchers also are testing whether readings could be taken when someone is lying in an awkward position or wearing multiple layers of clothing. So far, the results are encouraging.
The goal is to develop a handheld unit about the size of a legal notebook and as a thick as a ream of paper. Achieving this will require hardening of the unit and further testing of optical stabilization technology to make sure the unit can function despite a responder's arm and hand movements.
As a first step S&T's Tech Solutions wants to put working prototypes in the hands of medical teams this fall for extensive field tests. Commercialization could occur sometime mid to late 2010.