Technology Helping Address Indigenous Health-care Inequity

Technology Helping Address Indigenous Health-care Inequity

A specialist in remote care robotics and a Saskatchewan post-education leader see solutions for the health-care gap for Indigenous people.

The Canadian Chart of Rights and Freedoms, at its core, enshrines the equality of rights for all Canadians. However, there is an enduring inequity for Indigenous people accessing health care compared to non-Indigenous populations.

According to Statistics Canada, the life expectancy for an Indigenous male is eight years shorter, and for an Indigenous female 6.9 years shorter, than their non-Indigenous counterparts. The prevalence of diabetes in people living on reserves is three times that of non-Indigenous populations.

Active tuberculosis rates among the Inuit are three times higher than among non-Indigenous people, and infant mortality in Nunavut is four times higher than the national average. The suicide rate of young First Nations males living on reserves is seven times higher than for non-Indigenous youth.

These disheartening statistics show a huge gap in health-care delivery to Indigenous Canadian populations.

A significant barrier in health-care delivery is the remote geographical locations of many Indigenous communities. The costs of transporting Indigenous patients for health care is enormous; the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch expends more in medical transportation than in any other health-care service.

Last year, a report showed a 14.5 per cent increase in transportation costs compared to the previous year, reaching a whopping $602 million nationally; of that, $103.5 million was spent in Saskatchewan transporting Indigenous patients.

Access to virtual care technologies will help address this geographical barrier and provide timely, clinically effective, and cost-efficient health care to these communities.

Substantial developments in mobile computing technology and the increasing accessibility to high-speed Internet services provided by low-earth-orbit satellites can help to narrow the digital divide to these populations.

For the past several years, we have been co-developing, with Indigenous communities, culturally appropriate, innovative virtual care solutions aimed at the most vulnerable segments such as children and pregnant women.

We have shown that with this technology, about 70 per cent of acutely ill children in remote locations can be treated in their own communities.

We have implemented tele-robotic sonography to provide prenatal ultrasound services to pregnant Indigenous women and it has proved to be clinically effective, with a high degree of acceptance and satisfaction by clinicians and patients. It was also culturally safe and cost efficient.

We envision a virtual health hub that will be able to scale up multiple health services to Indigenous communities across Saskatchewan and beyond.

We are in a pivotal time in the evolution of technology with the massive and brisk influx of artificial intelligence (AI) in our lives, advances in 5G connectivity, robotic technology and the surge of virtual health care during the pandemic.

These technological developments are unstoppable and will be transformative to health-care delivery. There is an urgent need to retool our health-care workforce by incorporating these changes into current training paradigms.

A core strategic goal of the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT) is to advance an innovation agenda for our learners.

We aim to be leaders in training the virtual health-care workers of the future. Incorporating state-of-the-art virtual care technologies such as AI into our health-care programs is a priority for SIIT.

This new generation of Indigenous health-care workers is vital to improve health care for Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada.

The future of Indigenous health is in empowering communities and Indigenous professionals to harness the full potential of technology to provide effective and culturally relevant health care to our Indigenous population, which is the youngest in Canada and growing at twice the pace of the general population.

Ivar Mendez is the director of the Virtual Care and Remote Presence Robotics Program at the University of Saskatchewan and the Virtual Health Hub. Riel Bellegarde is president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies.

Find the story on The Saskatoon StarPhoenix’s website here:

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