Saskatchewan launches test of medical telepresence

Ivar MendezSASKATOON, Sask. – Saskatchewan is pioneering a new method to deliver health services to remote communities. A ‘remote presence’ technology pilot project will be launched in Pelican Narrows to help improve access to timely healthcare for patients.

Remote presence technology is an advanced robotics telemedicine platform currently being used at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon for neurosurgical care. It enables a healthcare provider (such as specialist or physician) to instantly connect with a patient remotely, and perform real-time assessment, diagnosis and patient management.

“Our government supports innovative solutions that improve patient experiences and outcomes,” Health Minister Dustin Duncan said. “This cutting edge technology will help deliver timely care for patients in the Pelican Narrows area.”

The technology consists of robotic and portable devices equipped with high resolution cameras located at the point of care. A healthcare provider can connect with these devices from a remote location, using a laptop with a high resolution camera and a secure wireless network. Diagnostic information gathered at the point of care is transmitted in real-time to the specialist’s laptop.

The Ministry of Health has provided $250,000 for the purchase of remote presence technology equipment. The funding is directed to Northern Medical Services, a division of the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.

The Pelican Narrows pilot is led by Dr. Ivar Mendez (pictured), Head of the Department of Surgery at the University of Saskatchewan, in partnership with Northern Medical Services and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.

As reported in the Regina Leader-Post, Dr. Mendez bypassed a seven-to eight-hour drive when he examined a patient in Pelican Narrows from the auditorium at the Regina General Hospital, in a recent demonstration of the technology.

Dr. Mendez used his laptop computer and the Internet to connect to a mobile robot in the Angelique Canada Health Centre.

“This technology is going to break the barriers of time and distance and, in my mind, is going to save countless lives,” Dr. Mendez said. With a few clicks of his mouse, an RP-7 robot nearly 700 kilometres away was under his control. He easily used his mouse to drive the robot from different rooms, a camera showing him exactly where he was going.

“This computer that I’m using is a regular laptop computer and I’m just connected to regular Internet,” Dr. Mendez said. “There’s no additional or special infrastructure that is needed to operate this system.”

The five-and-a-half foot tall RP-7 has a triangular base and a spherical body with a screen and camera mounted on top.

Mendez moved the robot into an examination room where a nurse and a test patient were waiting and could communicate with Dr. Mendez virtually face to face. With the nurse’s help, Dr. Mendez’s robot was able to take the man’s vital signs and examine his skin with an attachable microscope.

“This technology does not replace human beings. It does not replace the expertise of the doctor, nurses or any other health professional. It is a medium that will allow that individual to come where the patient is and make a diagnosis and a decision of what needs to be done with the patient,” Dr. Mendez said.

To complement the nonportable RP-7, the pilot project will also use an RP-Xpress, a unit Mendez dubbed “the doctor in the box.” The RP-Xpress is a portable piece of equipment that could allow physicians direct contact at emergency scenes or patients’ homes.

Pelican Narrows was chosen for the pilot project because of its remote location, overworked ambulance service and health disparity, said Veronica McKinney, Northern Medical Services director.

“This technology is aimed at eliminating barriers of distance and time for healthcare access by rural and remote communities where the need is greatest,” Dr. Mendez said. “The devices can connect to available diagnostic peripherals such as stethoscopes, vital signs monitors and ultrasound equipment making real-time diagnosis and patient monitoring possible.

“Saskatchewan will be at the leading edge in the utilization of remote presence medical robotic technology aimed at improving health access and outcomes. We are proud to pilot this program in the First Nation community of Pelican Narrows.”

Northern Medical Services provides physician services to communities in northern Saskatchewan.

“Many of these communities are difficult to access,” McKinney said. “The use of remote presence technology in Pelican Narrows will reduce medical transportation costs, increase access to medical services and improve standards of care for patients.”

The remote presence technology was developed by In Touch Health Inc., a California-based company that provides healthcare-centric telemedicine solutions to customers in 20 countries. The Ministry of Health provided $250,000 for the purchase of the RP-7, RPXpress, five laptops for physicians and specialists and one ultrasound device for the units.

Written by Editor

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