Rabbits, robots and remote surgery – small Canadian firms offer tech that transforms healthcare

Great ideas, wonderful products, but little money to bring them to market … it’s an age-old problem and currently one that confronts many small Canadian tech vendors with innovative offerings targeting the healthcare industry.

From a tech perspective, the Canadian healthcare sector is making great strides, quickly adopting systems that improve the efficiency of health workers and boost patient knowledge, a study from analyst firm IDC Canada in Toronto says.

The report profiles 10 Canadian healthcare product vendors deemed “worth watching.” On average, these small companies have about 25 employees.

Many of the products arm patients with the information and help they need to care for themselves.

Such self-care, besides benefiting the patient usually has a broader positive impact. It cuts wait times, and reduces costs, says Krista Napier, ICT innovation analyst at IDC, who authored the report.

“Until recently investment in ICT has been fairly modest” at Canadian healthcare locations, she says. “We see symptoms of that every day in doctor and nurse shortages, hospital infections, and the growing volume of patient data that’s not being acted on.”

But the tide is turning, and that’s evident from the tremendous advances made by healthcare outfits such as at Atlantic Health Sciences Corp.

Atlantic Health is the largest multi-facility hospital in New Brunswick. It has been working over the past four years with Saint John-based AnyWare Group (AWG) to develop a Web portal to help manage patients with chronic diseases in their own homes.

AWG is on Napier’s top 10 “companies to watch” list.

The service provider’s portal product connects patients with healthcare workers through a role-oriented access management infrastructure that keeps private data secure. It has been tested by the hospital on 70 diabetes patients who require remote care.

Patients communicate and track blood sugar levels, diet, activity level, and have the ability to ask questions directly to a healthcare worker through the portal, says Jill BartonMacPhee, administrative director of clinical programs at Atlantic Health.

“We have one 87-year-old patient who’s been managed on the system for four weeks,” she says. “When he developed an ulcer on his leg, we told him to come in. But he says that he’s 87 and he doesn’t have to come in if he doesn’t feel like it.”

So instead, the octogenarian diabetic e-mailed pictures of his ulcer to his nurse. The nurse coached him on a Web portal about how to care for it, and the ulcer healed without any complications.

“For those patients who can’t or will not come in, they can still receive timely information online as to what they should be doing next,” BartonMacPhee adds.

One nurse is able to manage the 70 patients using the portal because of an alerts system that signals if a certain patient has any worrisome trends. Patients can also opt to take part in educational programs through the portal as an alternative to coming on site.

Doctors and patients alike can easily access the Web-based system because all that’s required to connect is a Java applet downloaded in the background, explains Allan Cameron, chief technology officer at Atlantic Health.

“We don’t install any software on the PC, so there’s no confusion if the physician has a problem on a computer, you know it’s not a software problem,” he says. “That makes the IT shop happy.”

Patient data is kept secure inside the hospital, with only the portal service hosted by Atlantic Health. An SSL VPN encrypted connection is set up between the user and the data, and users access their accounts with passwords.

It’s this flexible and easy-to-use yet secure approach that’s helped AWG attract 100 customers, Napier says.

It allows integration of that product into existing systems and infrastructure, she says. “Healthcare professionals are increasingly becoming mobile. Having access to patient information remotely can directly affect patient outcomes and wait times.”

Despite these benefits, small technology vendors often face challenges when trying to commercialize their products. Companies are able to tap government support for funding development for a prototype, but then they hit a wall.

“A company that’s able to align their messaging along the lines of disease management and patient self-care has been able to attract development funding,” Napier says. But after that, “it’s difficult because it’s so hard to come by early stage funding here in Canada.”

That’s been the experience of Markham, Ont.-based Quanser Consulting Inc. The company has developed medical robotics technology that allows surgeons to “feel” an operation even when conducting it remotely, and a rehabilitation robot that patients can use without the constant supervision of a healthcare worker.

But the commercialization of their products remains a major hurdle, explains Paul Gilbert, CEO of Quanser.

“The government does very well in providing help from concept to prototype,” he says. “The challenge is that to market and develop a product costs as much as building the prototype in the first place.”

Quanser develops robotics that provide force feedback, or haptic feedback, in order to simulate a sense of touch. They’ve applied the technology to a rehabilitative robot and remote surgery instruments.

Stroke victimrobot

Recovering stroke victims often must re-learn how to move their arms. That can take hours of time working with a therapist over a long period. Quanser’s robot aims to take the place of the therapist by guiding patients through a simple video game.

In one game, patients attempt to chase a rabbit around the screen with a net. If they are too weak to do it on their own, a robotic arm provides assistance to get the job done. If they are stronger, then the robot provides resistance to make the task a bit tougher.

The company worked with Toronto Rehabilitation Institute to develop the robot prototype. It has also worked with the University of Western Ontario on remote surgical robotics.

“Imagine a robot cutting into some skin and you’re operating it remotely with a joystick, but you can actually feel resistance of the skin,” Gilbert says.

Working with partners and demonstrating its products is the best chance Quanser and other small vendors have of getting their healthcare solutions funded, Napier says.

“Often these products are so impressive that healthcare providers can’t really believe they can do what they say they can do,” she says. “Companies must demonstrate the ROI of their products.”

Here is the complete list of companies in Napier’s report:

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