In the popular Star Trek TV show and movies, a doctor (usually McCoy, or science officer Spock) could approach someone in need of medical attention, wave a tricorder over the person and instantly get a diagnosis. It was a fantastical idea that no longer seems far-fetched. 

Breakthrough advancements in technology – such as artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors and enhanced connectivity, machine learning and big data – are being applied in the healthcare sector to turn the stuff of science fiction into reality. And many of those breakthroughs are already here, or coming soon to Canada. 

The Canadian medical technology industry is absolutely vibrating with energy and breakthroughs. There are more than 1,500 medical technology companies, employing 35,000 people, in a market valued at $6.7 billion. 

This is technology and innovation to improve the health system – and the individual care of people, particularly older adults – with less invasive procedures, reduced hospital stays and fewer visits, earlier and more accurate diagnosis, remote monitoring, improved patient safety and overall better quality of life.

With the healthcare system under stress in every province, some governments are getting behind these initiatives as potential opportunities to reduce costs while improving care. Last year, British Columbia launched the health tech accelerator Innovation Boulevard, while Quebec established the Social Services Innovation Support Fund with $18 million in funding over five years.

In Ontario, the government’s Office of the Chief Health Innovation Strategist committed $5.4 million to high-potential research projects including intelligent scheduling systems to reduce MRI wait times, a tablet-based assessment tool that monitors for cognitive impairment, an information portal to support breast cancer survivors and screening tools to identify people at risk for falls. 

Venture capital also sees the potential, and is pouring money into health tech start-ups. Universities are conducting world-class research to provide the foundation for developments that could transform how we think about and deliver healthcare for everyone. No one may benefit from this research more than the burgeoning population of Canadian Boomers, who might require interventions as they age, but don’t necessarily want to be tethered to the traditional system. 

Thanks to support from AGE-WELL, for instance, researchers from London, ON, are testing a new “telerobotic” rehabilitation system to deliver low-cost, individualized therapy at home for older stroke survivors, while eTreatMD, an AGE-WELL-supported stars-up in Vancouver, is developing apps that turn smartphones into medical devices, helping those with arthritis and skin conditions measure, monitor and manage pain, lifestyle and treatments. 

Toronto’s University Health Network recently launched CRANIA, the CenteR for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application, to find solutions for conditions that tend to affect older adults, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as depression, epilepsy, chronic pain and spinal cord injury. A key focus for the centre is neuromodulation ‒ devices that can be implanted in the brain, spinal cord or peripheral nerves to help control tremors from Parkinson’s, relieve chronic pain or even improve bladder control. 

The Canadian not-for-profit MEDEC represents more than 130 medical technology companies that create implantable devices, surgical tools and diagnostic technologies. Last year, it created a committee of MEDEC members and community healthcare providers to explore how remote monitoring technologies can help shift patient care away from hospitals and into the community. “People would rather receive care in their own homes than having to be admitted into the hospital,” said Gerry Frenette, MEDEC’s executive director of public and member relations. “[These] groups are coming together and looking at some of the barriers to the adoption of technologies like remote patient monitoring.”  

Here are three exciting remote-monitoring innovations from MEDEC members:

Roche Canada: Freedom from the lab

It’s estimated that 1 percent of the Canadian population is taking warfarin. The blood-thinning drug is prescribed for a number of serious conditions, including treatment and prevention of blood clots to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Patients taking warfarin require regular monitoring (two to four times a month) to manage blood thickness. Until recently, that meant regular appointments to have blood drawn and tested.

Today, thanks to Roche’s CoaguChek handheld self-testing system, you can conduct your own tests, anytime and anywhere, with accurate, reliable results in one minute, requiring just a drop of blood. (If you have a prescription for blood thinner medication, you can buy a CoaguChek from your pharmacy.) The ease and convenience mean improved quality of life and, more importantly, fewer life-threatening events. Next year, Roche will introduce CoaguChek INRange, an update to the system that features multiple enhancements, including Bluetooth and USB connectivity so that results can be shared with your physician or pharmacist. “Patients are liberated from the lab, and immediate decisions can be made by the healthcare professionals, with results being transmitted instantly,” says Sarah Mayer, a professional diagnostics product manager at Roche.

*Available now

Medtronic: Heal thyself 

Medtronic is synonymous with medical device innovation that helps us live longer, better. Founder Earl Bakken is credited with creating the first transistorized, battery-powered pacemaker, and Medtronic is a pioneer in insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors. More recently the company has expanded into remote monitoring for people discharged from hospital.

Clinicians use Medtronic Care Management Services to monitor 95,000 people in the US. MCMS is now available in Canada, helping healthcare providers deliver patient-centred care at home for everything from chronic disease management to knee and hip replacements. This expansion has the potential to turn traditional follow-up protocol on its head, reducing overall costs and bolstering convenience of care. Imagine being able to submit a photo of your healing incision, rather than having to bundle up, make your way to the hospital and hang out in a germ-infested waiting room only to hear: “Looks good.”  

*Available now

Cloud DX: An actual medical tricorder 

Kitchener, ON-based Cloud DX is an industry leader in remote patient monitoring. Its Connected Health Kit (available at clouddx.com) includes a wrist-cuff blood pressure monitor, Bluetooth scale and an Android health tablet with software that can connect you to a doctor in real time for a video or text chat. The company recognized that remote patient monitoring systems can be complicated to use, discouraging older adults, so it delivers a system that “just works” out of the box.

Last year, Cloud DX was named the first Bold Epic Innovator by the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE (which, yes, is named after Star Trek’s tricorders). The goal was to create a handheld device capable of screening for a number of diseases and health conditions, from anemia, atrial fibrillation and COPD to diabetes, hypertension, melanoma and even shingles. Cloud DX’s Vitaliti consists of four wireless monitoring devices that continuously track key vital signs – including blood pressure, heart rate, respiration rate, ECG, blood oxygen saturation and core body temperature – and deliver information to a smartphone app. Cloud DX is still testing the product and seeking regulatory approvals but hopes to have Vitaliti in market soon. According to the company, Star Trek-like automated diagnostics is a very new concept but no longer considered impossible. In the short term, devices like Vitaliti will be used to screen for possible diagnoses that will be confirmed by a human clinician. 

*In development

Originally published in Issue 02 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine. PG. 35