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Space-age technology brings ultrasound services to Gravelbourg – SwiftCurrentOnline.com

Technology originally developed to monitor the health of astronauts in space will soon bring ultrasound services to St Joseph’s Hospital in Gravelbourg.

The MELODY Telerobotic Ultrasound System technology was developed by the European Space Agency. It is now being adapted by the Saskatchewan healthcare industry to bring essential services to rural and remote areas of the province.

For Gravelbourg residents, Moose Jaw is the closest center to get an ultrasound, which is about an hour and a half away.

The initiative first began in northern Saskatchewan, and in November 2022, Gravelbourg became the first community in southern Saskatchewan to receive the technology. Technicians from Paris, France had to fly to Saskatoon and drove to Gravelbourg to install the system.

Saskatchewan has the country’s only telerobot ultrasound program and the greatest expertise in this technology in the world.

“We were pioneers in adapting this space-age technology for clinical use,” said Dr. Ivar Mendez, professor of surgery and director of the Virtual Nursing and Remote Presence Robotics program at the University of Saskatchewan.

The initiative is a partnership between the U of S, the Saskatchewan Department of Health and the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation to obtain the resources and funding to purchase and install the system in Gravelbourg.

According to Mendez, the problem with ultrasound scans is that they have to be performed by a limited number of ultrasound professionals and cannot be performed by just anyone, especially prenatal ultrasounds to check the health of unborn babies.

This new technology allows the ultrasound expert to perform the service from thousands of kilometers away. In the case of St. Joseph’s Hospital, a technician in Saskatoon performs the ultrasound with a robotic arm. All that is required in Gravelbourg is a site assistant, who requires no special training, to hold the frame on which the robotic arm is installed. Mendez said other sites have had everyone from nurses to clerks as site assistants.

A woman performs a virtual ultrasound.A sonographer in Saskatoon performs an ultrasound on a patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Gravelbourg using telerobotic technology. (Photo courtesy of Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation)

A sonographer in Saskatoon performs an ultrasound on a patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Gravelbourg using telerobotic technology. (Photo courtesy of Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation)

Encrypted data allows the patient and technician to see and communicate with each other and confidentially view the ultrasound image in real time. Otherwise, Mendez said it works with a regular internet connection.

“If you can play your Netflix movie on your TV, then this system will work with that bandwidth,” he said.

Mendez’s preliminary studies from northern Saskatchewan showed 97 percent patient acceptance, meaning the vast majority of patients would rather have the ultrasound performed in their own community than fly to Saskatoon for the service.

Over 300 ultrasound scans have been performed using this technology in northern Saskatchewan, with 80 percent of those scans being for prenatal care. According to Mendez, previous studies have shown that robotic ultrasounds are just as good and accurate as traditional personal ultrasounds.

The robotic ultrasound system at Gravelbourg has so far only been used to test pregnant patients, but Mendez hopes the service will be available very soon.

Mendez said the ultimate goal is to expand the project to reach as many rural and remote communities as possible and align it with regular systems to become part of the evolution of virtual care. However, he felt that robotics would not replace humans.

“This technology really is unstoppable. It will happen. We’re going to have a hybrid system in the future where we’re going to use advanced virtual care technology with personal healthcare,” he said.

He believes technology will enable healthcare workers, doctors and nurses to spend more time looking at patients holistically, spending more time with patients and improving the doctor-patient relationship.

Below you can watch a video from the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation showing how the system works.

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