Remote robotic technology "a game-changer” for youth mental health

By Taylor MacPherson
October 10, 2017 - 2:48pm

Young people suffering from mental health issues in remote Saskatchewan First Nations communities will soon have close-to-home treatment options through robotics technology, thanks to a big donation announced this morning.

The $500,000 donation, from the Royal Bank of Canada to the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation, will be used to provide remote-presence technology to northern communities specifically to address youth mental health issues. The donation was announced this morning at the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre on the University of Saskatchewan’s Saskatoon campus.

RBC Regional President Kim Ulmer said the technology will come as a huge improvement to mental healthcare in remote, northern communities, where access to necessary mental health treatments often requires extensive travel.

"More than ever before, our young people matter," Ulmer said. "Their success in today's changing world depends on having the support where and when they need it."

Ulmer said more than a million Canadian youths are currently affected by mental health issues, yet only about 20 per cent of them receive the treatment they need. The remote-presence technology will come as “a game-changer” to those communities, she said, by creating a direct link between patients and mental health professionals.

Dr. Ivar Mendez, head of the department of surgery at the University of Saskatchewan, said the remote-presence technology can include handheld units similar to a tablet, as well as larger robots which essentially take the place of a clinical practitioner. The remote-presence robots allow psychiatrists full control over the robot, Mendez said, and the technology even allows the robots to automatically turn and “face” a person who is speaking.

“Remote-presence is different than just a camera and a screen. It is the ability of the physician to move the robot to where the patient is, and to be able to communicate to a higher degree,” Mendez said. “With this system the psychiatrist can actually access the robot from anywhere. From their iPad, for example.”

Although the robotic healthcare technology has not been used to address youth mental health issues before, Mendez said previous data shows that remote-presence healthcare allows children and young people to be treated in their own communities far more often, and makes follow-up appointments much easier for all parties. Young people can continue to take advantage of their familial and community supports, he said, without having to sacrifice the quality of their mental healthcare.

“Our experience so far, using this system in northern Saskatchewan for acutely ill children, has shown that we can take care of these children in their own communities 64 per cent of the time,” Mendez said.

Mendez said the new remote-presence units will be provided to communities in the coming weeks. The communities receiving the robotic technology will be determined based on need, he said.


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