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Innovation in Alberta: tech helps cancer, stroke patients re-learn how to swallow

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A made-in-Alberta piece of technology is helping cancer and stroke patients relearn how to swallow. Morgan Black shares how one doctor is creating change as part of our Alberta Innovates series.

An innovative piece of tech made in Alberta is helping teach cancer and stroke patients how to swallow again.

Dr. Jana Rieger and her team created Mobili-T to help patients with dysphagia, a medical term for a swallowing disorder that occurs as a side effect of those medical conditions.

“Every meal a patient sits down to is a fear-generating event because they are choking on their food,” Rieger explained. “It’s also really risky. If it goes into their lungs, they can end up with some serious consequences like pneumonia.”

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As part of typical therapy treatment, patients are taught to do exercises for their swallowing muscles. Rieger said the problem is, those machines are large and available only inside a clinic.

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“If patients want therapy they need to come in for the intensive therapy and that just didn’t happen. They had to do it for days or months on end. It intruded into their lives.”

Mobili-T allows patients to do their treatment at home. The wireless device connects to the throat and can sense muscle activity. The software gives patients feedback via their smart device. The device also has a direct connection to a speech language pathologist.

Alberta Innovates‘ Tim Murphy said the device is a perfect example of digital health, which focuses on giving patients more control when it comes to care.

“You give them the info they need, where they need it and when they need it,” he said. “With that, they can make good decisions about their health.”

From check-ups to treatments, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated virtual care across the country.

“We have been going in this direction for a long time. I think we’ve reached a tipping point,” Rieger said. “It’s going to be revolutionary.”

Rieger said Alberta Innovates has been a big support network for her work, including when she made the jump from academia to commercialization.

Read more: Pandemic worsened gaps in care, led to 30% fewer cancer diagnoses: Alberta doctor

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“To have that relationship where they will provide funding and mentorship… all of those things are really important for growing,” she explained. “Their support has been critical to the success of what we’re doing.”

Rieger, who is also a professor at the University of Alberta, said the device is empowering for patients.

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Murphy said he hopes Alberta will become an investment magnet for health tech, while creating better care outcomes in Alberta.

“What that will mean for people is less hospitalization and less hospital visits,” he said.

“Digital health is basically care that’s provided to people that’s enabled by technology.”

Mobili-T is selling in the United States market only. Rieger said the team is working on Health Canada approval.

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