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Friday, July 10, 2009

Astro-doc Thirsk keeps busy in space

Canadian physician Robert Thirsk has been keeping busy during his ongoing stay on the International Space Station.

Not only has he been providing medical care for his fellow astronauts and operating the Canadarm2 during his extraterrestrial trip, he's also received an honourary doctorate from the University of Calgary and published several academic papers in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. (And, presumably, the rest of his time has been taken up drinking tang, eating dehydrated food, making 2001: A Space Odyssey jokes, and whatever else it is astronauts do on the space station.)

In the CMAJ, he's written about the living conditions in space:

"In a weightless environment where everything "floats," more attention must be paid to proper body position and physical restraint when attending to bodily functions. A spacecraft is no place for anyone whose vacation experiences are limited to 5-star hotels."
Along with former Canadian astronaut Dr David Williams and several other co-authors, he also published a really interesting and comprehensive review of the medical literature on the acclimatization (which they call "acclimation") of the human body to conditions in orbit:
"The facial fullness and unique puffy appearance of the head coupled with reduced volume in the lower limbs associated with this fluid redistribution is referred to anecdotally as the "puffy face–bird leg" syndrome."
Another review examined the many ways one can be killed, injured or otherwise harmed while in space (PDF), including "high vacuum, microgravity, extremes of temperature, meteoroids, space debris, ionospheric plasma, and ultraviolet and ionizing radiation."

Dr Thirsk and the same group of co-authors also put out a paper on the medical innovations from space that have informed the practice of medicine on earth, in which they correct the common misperception that Teflon, Tang and Velcro were all invented by the American space program, and describe the benefits that space inventions have provided to a number of earthly endeavours, from surgery to firefighting to disease tracking to sports medicine to surgery.

Granted, Dr Thirsk surely did the research and writing for these articles before his rocket launched for the ISS, but still: it's pretty cool to be publishing articles from space.

FURTHER READING
To read a Q&A I conducted with Dr Thirsk before he lifted off, read my article from the May issue of Parkhurst Exchange.

For weekly updates about Dr Thirsk's mission on the ISS, you can consult the Canadian Space Agency's Expedition 20/21 website.

Also of interest is an eloquent, short piece by Dr David Williams about a spacewalk he conducted.

Photo: Canadian Space Agency

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Chalk River reactor to be closed longer than predicted

The Chalk River nuclear reactor, which is responsible for producing much of the world's supply of radioisotopes used in medical scans, will not restart operations until "late 2009" at the earliest, announced the plant's owner Atomic Energy of Canada Limited yesterday.

"Returning the NRU to service to support the production of medical isotopes for Canadian patients and healthcare practitioners is our primary objective" AECL president/CEO Hugh MacDiarmid said. "We have a dedicated team working around the clock to bring the NRU back to operation as quickly and as safely as possible. However, it is a complex task with many variables."

The facility was shut down for repairs in mid-May after a serious leak was discovered.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt pronounced themselves "disappointed" in AECL's estimate of a return to operations for the reactor.

Compounding the bad news is a report from the Netherlands that their radioisotope-producing nuclear plant, which has been picking up much of the slack during the Chalk River shutdown, will shut down on Wednesday. The Dutch plant and Chalk River are the world's two biggest producers of the crucial radioisotope technetium-99.

There are hopes, however, that a Belgian reactor may be able to make up at least a portion of the shortfall during the Dutch plant's repairs. "It'll all depend whether the Belgian reactor comes on as we hope it will," Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine president Dr Christopher O'Brien told The Globe and Mail. "If the Belgian reactor does not come on and Petten is down, we will be in dire straits... The plan is just to muddle on."

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Suffering from administrative distress?

Fight back against paperwork-induced burnout

"I adore seeing patients, but what will drive me out of family practice eventually is the paperwork."

Sound familiar? If you spend hours each day filling out paperwork for which there’s no billing code, and if you spend your evenings and weekends completing form after endless form, and it's driving you up the wall — well, you're not alone. Recently, a team of Saskatchewan researchers set out to measure just how bad the problem has become.

In a study published In March's Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, psychiatrist David Keegan and researchers Rein Lepnurm and Wallace Lockhart measured what they called the "daily distress" of doctors. They asked physicians across the country about their professional and personal lives: anger at colleagues, frustration with demanding patients, ability to sleep soundly, whether work responsibilities interfered with home lives, etc.

The study's results (PDF) were, well, deeply distressing. According to their measures, slightly more than 50% of doctors experience very serious distress several times a month; another 37% are in distress at least once a week.

Read the rest of this article, from the June issue of Parkhurst Exchange, online here.

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