Telehealth fund could redefine remote care

A $350,000 fund announced Monday by the Canadian Space Agency and the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems could be a starting point for medical advances in space and here on Earth.

The CSA-IRIS Cooperation Program,

as it’s being called, will help develop Canadian university research in the areas of telemedicine and telerobotics.

The fund is available to every university in the country but they will have to compete for it by submitting proposals to IRIS. The organization is expecting anywhere from 15 to 25 research proposals, but only eight will be selected, said Paul Johnston, vice-president of operations for Precarn Inc. Precarn is the not-for-profit company which was founded to support intelligent systems research and manage IRIS.

The deadline for proposals, which can be submitted to Precarn’s Web site, is Dec. 1. Recipients will be announced next March and research is to be completed by the end of March 2005. At that point, more funding may be allocated to further the research or private sector companies may become involved to take it to the next level.

“”We’re tapping into the minds of the researchers and getting them to work in the space sector through a vehicle that can reach them. Reaching the researchers in universities is not an easy thing and IRIS has proven to be a very good way of joining ideas towards common intelligence applications,”” said Phillip Price, who used to work with the CSA but now operates on a consultancy basis.

He said that robotics research could be used to enable projects like Canadarm — the robotic arm used for object retrieval and positioning on space shuttles. The technology could also be used on a space station, in satellites or in controls that are operated from the ground.

Robotic technology may one day handle medical procedures millions of miles away, such as ultrasound scans or even surgery, which would involve a host of other considerations. “”If you were trying to operate with somebody on the Moon or on Mars, then the time delays and communications become very critical,”” said Johnston.

Back on Earth, technology like that could be useful for catering to patients in the remotest parts of Canada, he added. IRIS has already worked on a project where doctors were able to remotely scan the retinas of Inuit children to look for the early warning signs of diabetes. Through telerobotics, surgery could be performed without the surgeon being present.

Robotic technology won’t be available to every small community in Northern Canada, said Johnston, but it could be in larger centres like Yellowknife. Today, for many surgical proceedures, people in remote communities may have to fly all the way to places like Edmonton.

In order for technology like this to have the greatest impact, the CSA and IRIS will have to coordinate their efforts with similar initiatives that are being undertaken by the other branches of government. Once the research universities have been selected, said Johnston, IRIS will involve provincial and federal government, including Health Canada.

Recent government-funded telehealth projects include a $155-million investment in rural Internet development (which also included participation from the CSA) and a joint project from the government of P.E.I. and the federal government to monitor vital signs remotely.

Robotic healthcare may have benefits beyond helping those who live in remote communities, said Johnston.

“”Even the best surgeons have vibration in their stitches. If the robot could actually help stitch nerves back together . . . (it) could get rid of any vibration or hesitation,”” he said. Repetitive strain injuries like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome sometimes result from operating an ultrasound machine — a robot could perform that procedure while a medical professional monitors the results, he said.

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