The IFAM came out of a report from medical consultants about the current health needs of the community, and it was determined that Telluride offered a unique location for a program that specialized not only in treatment of high-altitude health complications, but also research and education.
Peter Hackett, M.D., is the executive director of the IFAM, which got its start in Telluride last summer. He said this kind of program is needed not only for Telluride, but for all high altitude regions.
“The idea is that there are medical and health issues specific to high altitude and there is really a need for authoritative information and research on the subject,” Hackett said last week. “There is a need for an expert to set up shop and to see patients about any issues they may be having with altitude. We have three aims: clinical work, education and research.”
The lack of oxygen at high altitudes – compared to sea level, Denver has 17 percent less oxygen and Telluride 28 percent less – puts stress on the body, creating a number of problems for visitors and residents alike, according to Hackett.
Even though IFAM is relatively new, Hackett said research has already begun on a variety of issues, such as creating a study of high altitude pulmonary edema. This illness, in which the lungs fill with fluid, is common to Telluride visitors. The Telluride Medical Center sees about 30 cases a year, and the State of Colorado a few hundred cases each year. Future research projects at IFAM will include a study of low birth rate infants at altitude, heart disease and why people live longer at higher elevations.
Headaches are perhaps the most common medical complaint among visitors to high altitude areas, but little is know about why they occur.
“We are doing a study to see if the brain is swollen during these headaches,” Hackett said. “We don’t know what exactly causes it and is very common and can be very debilitating.”
Hackett said health issues related to high altitude are not only problematic for the patient, but for the tourist economy as well.
“We know from previous studies that about 50 percent of the people going to Mountain Village will get a headache. Thirty percent will not do their usual activity,” he said. “We estimate it costs Colorado ski resorts about $345 million a year in lost revenues. Other studies show about 30 percent of visitors will not return because of the altitude.
“We don’t know how common this is in Telluride, but we hope to do a survey to get an idea on how bad it really is and then go from there.”
Another component of IFAM will be education about results garnered from research projects. The institute plans to educate residents, athletes and visitors about how to solve and avoid common altitude-related health issues. Hackett compared altitude sicknesses with sea sickness, in that people who know they are prone to sea sickness can combat the effects with some sort of medication, like Dramamine. Those susceptible to altitude sickness can likewise prepare.
“I don’t think people should put off coming to high altitude,” Hackett said. “I think that it is a lot like sea sickness. Most aren’t afraid to go on a cruise, but those who get seasick will bring some from of medicine with them. The same goes for high altitude. They can bring some medicine, take an easy first day, don’t drink [alcohol], and they will do fine. It is surprising that so many people don’t know about the simple steps you can take to solve the problem and we want to educate people on that without scaring them.”
And not all of the effects of living at high altitude are negative, and that’s information that could be used to draw more people to the Telluride area. For instance, training at altitude is a very popular, and effective, for athletes in a variety of sports to way to get in shape. Hackett said he doubted there was an Olympic athlete who didn’t train at high altitude.
“That could be a huge draw for Telluride,” he said. “It could attract some business for local hotels and we plan to offer international conferences on high altitude issues and that will also draw tourists and conference visitors. Plus, it will also draw expert doctors and student doctors who will want to come and learn about high altitude fitness.” Hackett also said that the institute could also help people who are planning to climb high peaks like Kilimanjaro or Everest.
The Telluride Medical Center is also benefiting from the IFAM’s research. By January, Hackett plans to have a medical service treadmill for testing and a new ultrasound machine. “For the medical center, it is a big plus to have the expanded medical services because of the IFAM,” Hackett said. “We will share it. They need it for service. We need it for research.”
The IFAM in Telluride is closely affiliated with the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. The IFAM obtained a lot of equipment support from the Telluride Medical Capital fund, which is a part of the Telluride Foundation, which according to Hackett, “has been great with funding our capital requests.”
Hackett said the IFAM will put Telluride in the forefront of high altitude medical research.
“This is the first time something like this is being offered,” he said. “It has a lot of potential and will go way beyond Telluride. It will help put Telluride on the map and will show that there is more going on in Telluride than the Bluegrass Festival.”