“This will be a model, I think, for the whole country,” said virtual health hub director Dr. Ivar Mendez.

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In rural and northern communities throughout Saskatchewan, patients who need routine tests, scans and lab services often have to travel — sometimes for hours — to a hospital.

A new Indigenous-led virtual health care hub aims to change that.

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The facility, to be based on Whitecap Dakota First Nation land south of Saskatoon, will serve as a “NASA-style command centre” for doctors providing tele-health and robotics-assisted care, according to Dr. Ivar Mendez, the project’s director.

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“For example, a young woman that is pregnant that needs a first ultrasound, at a very important stage of pregnancy, we will be able to deploy — we already have deployed — a robotic ultrasound arm where the technician is in Saskatoon but is able to move that arm.”

Cardiac monitoring, retinal scans, x-rays and certain lab tests can all be performed remotely using machines deployed to community nursing stations.

“We have a whole range of virtual care advanced technology (that) will allow us to do a true, comprehensive assessment of the patient,” Mendez said.

Once the virtual health hub is up and running, it will start by serving 30 communities, but Mendez said he anticipates it will eventually be able to serve up to 90 communities.

Patients will then be able to get “more timely and effective care,” and in many cases be able to stay “in their community with their own family,” which he hopes will lead to better experiences and improved health outcomes, he said.

“This will be a model, I think, for the whole country.”

The hub will be the first facility of its kind in Canada, and will operate in collaboration with the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT). The University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine’s Northern Medical Services and the Saskatchewan Health Authority will also partner on the project.

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The federal government will cover two-thirds of the construction costs; the province is funding the remaining third.

“We have been part of this conversation for a number of years, and we’re really happy that this has all come to fruition,” Premier Scott Moe said at a Thursday morning groundbreaking. “What this means, at the end of the day, is greater access to health care for Saskatchewan residents, regardless of where they live. …

We are 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.”

Whitecap Dakota First Nation Chief Darcy Bear said when he first heard about Mendez’s research on virtual health care and the use of remote technology for diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of rural patients, he knew he wanted to bring this work to his First Nation.

“This has been a journey since 2018 and meeting Dr. Mendez,” Bear said. “Looking at the very impressive work he was doing, understanding the fact that it was going to change the way we deliver health care.”

Bear said he expects the impacts to be wide-reaching.

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“I am really interested in how we can help all Canadians. I know we’re going to start with the rural and remote communities, but eventually it’s going to make a difference (and) it’s going to change the way we do health care. Saskatchewan is going to be that leader — not only nationally. This is going to go globally.”

Part of the hub’s partnership with SIIT will mean classes of approximately 12 students at a time will be trained to deliver health services using the virtual care technologies.

Graduates will then be able to travel to rural and remote communities, set up the machines and help patients with their appointments on-location while clinicians and technologists at Whitecap Dakota offer their expertise at a distance.

Moe said the hub will also help relieve some of the burdens on regional hospitals and urban emergency rooms.

“This is about all of us working together to deliver the services that we ultimately expect in our communities.”

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