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Sask. unveils 'NASA-style' Virtual Health Hub for remote medical care

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Rural and northern communities facing eight-hour or longer drives for routine trips to the doctor could soon be a thing of the past.

The new Virtual Health Hub unveiled and to be built at Whitecap Dakota First Nation not only aims to solve that challenge but hopes to change healthcare in Canada.

"It's going to change the way we deliver healthcare, and Saskatchewan is going to be that leader. This will go nationally and eventually it's going to go globally," Whitecap Dakota First Nation Chief Darcy Bear said Thursday.

The Virtual Health Hub, described as a "NASA-style command centre" by its top organizer, will allow a team of health professionals and specialists to provide tele-health and robotics care for remote and rural communities in real time.

Rather than drive plenty of hours to the nearest clinic for chest pain or an x-ray, staff at the health hub will be able to assess patients hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres away, and be able to treat or triage them.

Other monitoring systems, retinal scans, x-rays, and other lab equipment will be performed remotely using machines which will be sent to remote nursing stations and clinics.

Dr. Ivar Mendez, the director of the hub who is internationally recognized for his work with robotics and tele-healthcare, sees the hub as the future of how people will access care in this hybrid of virtual and traditional medicine.

"The future of healthcare is not really in building new brick and mortar hospitals, it's truly in the harnessing of the power of technology to deliver timely and effective healthcare to the whole segment of our population," he said.

(Virtual Health Hub)

The province, which is committing $9.1 million towards the project with Ottawa covering the rest of the capital costs, says patients and taxpayers will save millions of dollars in travel costs alone, but its true value will be opening up access for all.

"A different view of peeling back the layers of how traditionally we deliver healthcare and really peeling back the layers of what healthcare ideology has been and how those services are delivered, and looking at it from a patient's perspective," Premier Scott Moe said following the unveiling.

Bear said a pilot program at a Parkridge Centre long-term care home diverted 48 people away from a local emergency room using this technology in one month alone.

"That's the kind of difference this Virtual Health Hub is going to make," he said.

Mendez has been working for 10 years in Saskatchewan to deploy this technology to this degree. He says he chose Saskatchewan because of the opportunity to impact remote and rural communities. Eventually, he imagines people won't need to leave their houses for care as monitoring and diagnostic systems can remotely feed information about a patient back to the hub automatically.

Mendez also felt it was important to have the hub be Indigenous-led. Not only is it going to be built on a First Nation and be deployed primarily in Indigenous communities, but the hub and province are partnering with the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology to train 12 students at a time to work at the hub.

"The philosophy of the whole team has been how do we use state-of-the-art technology for the people that have the least and need the most?" Mendez said.

Once constructed, the health hub will initially support up to 30 communities remotely with plans to expand to 90 communities as students are trained and hired.

Bear said construction is likely to begin later this year with the hub being operational by 2026.

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