UCL doctors record lowest blood oxygen levels

7 January 2009

Mike Grocott at the summit of Everest

An expedition led by UCL doctors has recorded the lowest ever levels of oxygen in humans. The world-first measurements of blood oxygen levels in climbers near the top of Mount Everest, published today in ‘New England Journal of Medicine’ (NEJM), could eventually help critical care doctors to re-evaluate treatment strategies in some long-term patients with similarly low levels of blood oxygen. The purpose of the Caudwell Xtreme Everest expedition was to establish that high-altitude climbers have incredibly low levels of oxygen in their blood, which at sea-level would only be seen in patients close to death.

Dr Mike Grocott, Senior Lecturer in Critical Care Medicine (UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance) and Caudwell Xtreme Everest expedition leader, said: “By observing healthy individuals at high altitude where oxygen is scarce, we can learn about physiological changes that can improve critical care at the hospital bedside, because low oxygen levels are an almost universal problem in critical care.

“These extraordinary low levels of oxygen found in high-altitude climbers may cause doctors looking after critically ill patients to re-evaluate treatment goals in some patients who have been ill for some time and might have careful evaluation before they can be translated into clinical practice. We hope that ongoing research will eventually lead to better treatments for patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), cystic fibrosis, emphysema, septic shock, ‘blue baby’ syndrome and other critical illnesses.”

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Image: Dr Mike Grocott at the summit of Mount Everest ©Caudwell Xtreme Everest