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Leading the World in Telerobotic Ultrasonography: Dr. Ivar Mendez's Journey in Virtual Healthcare

by Sarah Kasleder for SHRF

Access to healthcare is not a luxury. It is a necessity.

This challenge became the mission for Dr. Ivar Mendez, Professor of Neurosurgery and Director of the Virtual Care and Remote Presence Robotics Program, and his team. Harnessing the power of technology, where healthcare is scarce, and needs are most pressing in the farthest corners of Saskatchewan, became their quest.

“All these technological changes are unstoppable, but the key question is how do we use them to enhance our work? Specifically, to the people who are more disadvantaged in the world,” expressed Dr. Mendez. 

Dr. Ivar Mendez and his team were once again recognized for their outstanding performance and awarded the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) Excellence Award for the top-ranked 2022-23 Solutions-Impact Grant for research to enhance access to ultrasound services using a telerobotic ultrasonography system in rural southern Saskatchewan. This award adds to Dr. Mendez’s previous SHRF Excellence Award and his team for their exceptional SHRF Solutions Grant, where the team aimed to develop a strategic framework for virtual care in Saskatchewan.

Ultrasound Access through a Virtual Health Hub

Dr. Ivar Mendez with a virtual presence robot
Dr. Ivar Mendez with a virtual presence robot, image provided by Dr. Ivar Mendez

Dr. Mendez's journey began over a decade ago when virtual healthcare was still in its infancy. In an interview with SHRF, he reminisced, "We came up with the idea of using virtual mobile diagnostic technologies before the pandemic, when virtual care had become a big deal." His foresight into the potential of technology to bridge healthcare gaps laid the groundwork for what would become a transformative endeavour. 

He focused on leveraging emerging innovations to serve underserved, remote, and often Indigenous communities. Technology and the need for care propelled Dr. Mendez into a new project through a Virtual Health Hub.

An understanding of the healthcare landscape drove Dr. Mendez's strategic choice of ultrasonography, “How can we bring the ultrasound to them.” Recognizing the critical role of diagnostic imaging in patient health, especially in prenatal care. Dr. Mendez saw ultrasonography as a cornerstone technology to address pressing healthcare needs.

He aimed to increase access to this essential diagnostic tool, ensuring that even the most remote communities could benefit from timely and accurate medical assessments. 

The Impact of Telerobotic Ultrasonography 

Members of Dr. Mendez's technical team: Joey Deason, Luis Bustamante, Hamza Dani, Brittany Olson
Members of Dr. Mendez's technical team: Joey Deason, Luis Bustamante, Hamza Dani, Brittany Olson, Photograph by Sarah Kasleder

A significant impact of robotic ultrasonography is its cost-effectiveness. As Dr. Mendez's research demonstrates, deploying robotic ultrasound clinics can result in substantial cost savings compared to traditional healthcare delivery models. By avoiding the expenses associated with patient transportation, accommodation, and lost productivity, healthcare systems can allocate resources more efficiently and ensure equitable access to care for all patients, regardless of their geographical location.

Dr. Mendez reveals the reality of life without access to ultrasound services, highlighting its implication on individuals’ health and well-being. “We often see patients referred for ultrasounds due to abdominal pain, but delays in scheduling or inability to travel result in them returning 6-7 months later with life-threatening conditions. This delay not only delays diagnosis but also compromises timely treatment or management.”

Furthermore, the patient experience is significantly enhanced through robotic ultrasonography. Patients no longer have to endure the stress and inconvenience of travelling long distances for medical appointments. Instead, they can receive high-quality care in familiar surroundings, surrounded by their loved ones and support networks. This improves patient satisfaction and promotes better health outcomes by reducing barriers to accessing care.

Dr. Mendez shares, “Getting an ultrasound often means travelling, staying in hotels, and waiting for days, which is costly and time-consuming. This disrupts family and community life.  For example, during the crucial first ultrasound, women miss the support of their partners and families due to being alone due to travel and logistics. The lack of connection with family or the need to travel leads to complications, and we aim to address this issue.”

Dr. Mendez’s approach extends beyond deploying technology; it encompasses community engagement, collaboration, and capacity building. Dr. Mendez shares this key to success and underscores the importance of cultural sensitivity: “We won’t deploy any technology unless it is culturally appropriate and sensitive.” By involving local community members, Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and healthcare workers in the process, Dr. Mendez ensures that solutions are tailored to their unique needs in a culturally safe way while impacting healthcare access across Saskatchewan.  

The Need for Nurses and How Telerobotics is Bridging the Gap

Dr. Ivar Mendez
Dr. Ivar Mendez, image provided by Dr. Mendez

The critical need for nurses is a pressing concern within healthcare systems worldwide, and Saskatchewan is no exception. Dr. Ivar Mendez's research underscores the urgency of addressing this shortage, particularly in remote and underserved communities where access to healthcare is already limited. Dr. Mendez stated in the interview, "In Saskatchewan alone, we need 2,000 nurses over the next five years. In Canada, we need 60,000 nurses." These staggering figures underscore the scale of the workforce deficit and its profound implications for patient care.

Nurses are pivotal in the healthcare ecosystem, serving as frontline providers of essential services and advocates for patient well-being. However, recruiting and retaining nurses in remote areas presents unique challenges, including geographical isolation, limited professional development opportunities, and inadequate support infrastructure. Dr. Mendez shares, “In rural areas, nurses frequently lack support and are sometimes pressured to practice beyond their scope, posing a significant challenge to nurse retention and recruitment.”

Dr. Mendez's advocacy for alternative pathways to nursing is through training the nurses to utilize remote robotics. By training nurses to operate technology-enabled systems and collaborate effectively within interdisciplinary teams, he empowers them to deliver high-quality care and bridge gaps in service delivery. Furthermore, initiatives like the Virtual Health Hub expand access to healthcare and create opportunities for professional growth and community engagement for nurses. “Within this new model, we can train this individual to use this cutting-edge technology under physician guidance. Nurses become the eyes and hands of the physician, fostering mutual comfort and collaboration. This approach enhances patient care by bringing diagnostics to them and signifies the future of real-time healthcare delivery.”

Dr. Mendez's dedication to leveraging technology for the betterment of all has improved access, satisfaction, and patient outcomes. The telerobotic technology has overwhelming satisfaction rates of 97%, increased capacity, and demonstrated cost-effectiveness. His initiative has transformed healthcare delivery and is recognized, including the Excellence Award from SHRF. Truly, Dr. Mendez’s legacy is one of hope, equity, and limitless potential, inspiring a future where quality healthcare knows no boundaries. 

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