Virtual health services will stay long after COVID says U of A researcher

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What these units offer is assessments on vertigo, shoulder pain and instability, follow-up for hip and knee replacement, and wheelchair and special seating.

“It really talks about moving into a new era of how we would use technology to support a virtual health assessment,” said Ferguson-Pell.

Certain things had to come together for this to happen. They had to speak with rural clinicians and specialists in urban Alberta to map what the assessments would entail and what roles the patient, clinician and specialist would play.

Using mostly off-the-shelf technology with some developed internally, they came up with a pack that has a double robot, “like an iPad on a stick with wheels,” says Ferguson-Pell. The unit is controlled by a specialist in a larger urban centre like Edmonton.

“We found this to be really valuable because the urban specialist can feel like they are in the room with the patient and it feels more natural, instead of a fixed camera in the room,” Ferguson-Pell said.

They’re also using a made-in-Alberta technology called Kinetisense, which measures things like a patients’ balance and range of motion, and gives the specialist a wealth of information.

“Our whole approach is to see this as a partnership between the specialist who’s in, let’s say, Edmonton and the general clinician, who would be in Peace River, and they work together as a team,” Ferguson-Pell says.

He says he hopes that over time, these kinds of interactions will result in the general clinician taking on more of the specialist’s work independently.

“It’s valuable to the assessment that everyone in the room can talk together and have a rich conversation, and everyone is in the room planning the next steps,” said Ferguson-Pell.

He added an additional benefit is that the patient doesn’t have to drive great distances, which can be expensive and tiresome. Ultimately, he said he would like to see the unit used not just in rural clinics but in other applications, such long-term care facilities for seniors, to lessen the problems of in-person visits during situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

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