Pilot program uses robotics, internet to deliver rehab care to rural Albertans

A pilot program hopes to use telehealth technology to deliver rehabilitation care to rural Albertans who live in communities without such services nearby.

The University of Alberta trial will focus on patients dealing with shoulder pain, hip and knee replacements, vertigo and balance issues or in need of wheelchair seating services.

“What is lacking in rural Alberta is that specific expertise of those specialists to be able to do those kinds of assessments,” said Martin Ferguson-Pell, a professor with the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

“What we’re doing is to connect a specialist here in Edmonton to a general clinician who would be in a rural part of Alberta along with [the] patient,” Ferguson-Pell said.

“Essentially it’s like a coaching process.”

The clinician is equipped with a wheeled robot topped by an iPad-like video screen.

The robot, controlled by the specialist, is used to get a closer look at the patient’s movements. The specialist will also be able to communicate with the patient through the robot’s camera.

The clinician’s kit also includes a wheelchair and a laptop with a 3D-motion-capture program called Kinetisense which produces injury-related data based on video of the patient’s movements.

A demonstration at the University of Alberta’s Rehabilitation Robotics Lab shows how a robot with a video screen allows a specialist to monitor patient movement from another location. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Ferguson-Pell said Alberta is a perfect location for the trial as close to a million Albertans do not have access to rehab care in their community.

“We’ve got excellent urban centres. We’ve got outstanding clinical academic expertise to move it forward and we have a significant and very dispersed rural population,” he said.

“So we’re a great platform to try this out, but once we’ve demonstrated that this works, that’s then something that I think the whole of Canada could benefit from.”

Researchers are currently looking to recruit patients and start the trial in March.

The early trials will last six to eight weeks and take place in Jasper, Grande Prairie and Peace River, while additional trials will take place in other locations.

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