Can’t access a doctor? A robot will see you now

Click to play video: '‘Doctor in a box’ is changing Canadian health care'
‘Doctor in a box’ is changing Canadian health care
Imagine not having access to a doctor, and the only way you can receive care is if you travel hundreds of kilometres. A Saskatchewan program is harnessing the power of medical robotics to bring care to remote communities. – Mar 20, 2018

There is a robot revolution in health care. Everything from surgery, to preparing chemotherapy and how care is delivered to patients is being transformed by medical robotics.

In Saskatchewan, that means medicine is beamed into remote communities with the assistance of robots.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Ivar Mendez, from the University of Saskatchewan, for years has been pioneering the use of remote presence technology in isolated communities in South America, Atlantic Canada and now Saskatchewan.

With the help of a robot, Dr. Ivar Mendez tours the nursing station at Pelican Narrows and talks to staff.

“Access is extremely important,” Mendez told Global News. “I feel that technology, and specifically remote presence technology, will allow us to narrow this gap of inequality.”

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This is not just a medical consultation at a distance. These are specialized robots that allow doctors to run tests, diagnose and treat — remotely.

READ MORE: Robot to help provide health care in remote Sask. community

Using a cellphone connection, doctors and nurses can perform an ultrasound, check vital signs, heart and lungs, review X-rays and laboratory tests and more. There are now 22 machines in Saskatchewan that can perform various duties — more than any other province.

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“To be able to deliver health care at the highest standards to individuals that are under-serviced, individuals and communities that have the least and need the most,” said Mendez.

The technology is allowing patients to do something they often cannot – receive care at home.

Vanessa Linklater’s daughter Grace has an appointment with Dr. Tanya Holt remotely. Vanessa Linklater

Vanessa Linklater lives in Pelican Narrows, hundreds of kilometres from a hospital. Her daughter, five-year-old Grace, suffers from a respiratory illness that has forced her for years to be flown out of the community for care. It was upsetting for the family.

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“It’s very stressful to leave your home and other kids behind,” Linklater told Global News.

Now when Grace is sick, they visit the local nurse in Pelican Narrows who connects with pediatric intensivist Dr. Tanya Holt in Saskatoon, using a robot. Holt has successfully treated Grace.

“It is a very big relief,” said Linklater. “We get great care and access to a great doctor.”

Across the country, every year, thousands of patients from remote First Nations and Inuit communities are forced to leave their homes for health care – just to see a doctor — everything from checkups to emergencies.

In 2015-16, transporting and housing patients cost the federal government upwards of $375 million and that doesn’t cover all of it.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan uses cutting-edge robotics to improve health care in remote regions

Most recently, Mendez and his team have used the technology in isolated First Nations communities. Their study found robot-assisted care could provide specialized and emergency care to acutely ill children.

“About 63 per cent of these children were safely taken care of in their own communities,” said Mendez. “And the other thing that we found is that this technology is cost-effective.”

Click to play video: 'Medical robotics changing health care in Canada'
Medical robotics changing health care in Canada

WATCH ABOVE:  In operating rooms across Canada, doctors are getting high-tech help from robots that are becoming indispensable. They help surgeons be more precise, and make patients feel at ease. Allison Vuchnich reports on the changing landscape of medical robots.

Dr. Ibrahim Khan, regional medical health officer, with Indigenous Services Canada in Saskatchewan, says the lack of access in remote northern communities puts the most pressure on the vulnerable – children, seniors and pregnant women. He adds the remote presence technology has been helpful in a number of ways.

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“The benefit of its use has been proven very effective in mental health, infectious diseases like TB [tuberculosis], HIV, high-risk child health conditions, high-risk maternal conditions, and mental-health crisis and injuries and trauma.”

Bringing a doctor in real time to the patient, the goal is to bring the “doctor in a box” to more Indigenous communities – and to other vulnerable patients across Canada.

Mendez continues to innovate, his latest project includes testing robot care in long-term care facilities for seniors.

“It’s our hope that the work we’re doing in Saskatchewan will eventually be disseminated throughout Canada.”

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