Technology initially produced to monitor the health of astronauts in space will soon bring ultrasound services to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Gravelbourg.  

The MELODY Telerobotic Ultrasound System technology was developed by the European Space Agency. It’s now being adapted by Saskatchewan’s healthcare industry to bring critical services to rural and remote areas of the province.  

For Gravelbourg residents, the closest centre to receive an ultrasound is Moose Jaw, which is about an hour and a half away.  

The initiative first began in Northern Saskatchewan and in November of 2022 Gravelbourg became the first community in Southern Saskatchewan to get the technology. Technicians from Paris, France, had to fly to Saskatoon and drove to Gravelbourg to install the system.  

Saskatchewan has the only telerobotic ultrasound program in the country and the most expertise with the technology in the world.  

“We were pioneers in the adaption of this space-age technology for clinic use,” said Dr. Ivar Mendez, professor of surgery and director of the virtual care and remote presence robotics program at the University of Saskatchewan.  

The initiative is a partnership between the U of S, the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation to get the resources and funding to purchase and install the system in Gravelbourg.  

Mendez said the issue with ultrasounds is that they must be performed by a limited number of expert ultra-sonographers and cannot be performed by just anyone, especially prenatal ultrasounds to check on the health of unborn babies.  

This new technology allows the expert ultra-sonographer to perform the service from thousands of kilometres away. In the case of St. Joseph’s Hospital, a technician in Saskatoon performs the ultrasound using a robotic arm. All that is needed in Gravelbourg is a site assistant, who doesn’t need any special training, to hold the frame where the robotic arm is installed. Mendez said in other locations they’ve had everyone from nurses to clerks as site assistants.  

A woman performs an ultrasound virtually.A sonographer in Saskatoon performs an ultrasound on a patient at St. Joseph's Hospital in Gravelbourg using telerobotic technology. (Photo courtesy: Jim Pattison Children's Hospital Foundation)

Encrypted data allows the patient and the technician to see and communicate with each other and see the ultrasound picture in real-time confidentially. Otherwise, Mendez said it works with a regular internet connection.  

“If you can play your Netflix movie on your TV, this system will work with that amount of bandwidth,” he said.  

Mendez’s preliminary studies from Northern Saskatchewan showed a 97 per cent acceptance from patients meaning the vast majority of patients would rather have the ultrasound done in their own community versus flying into Saskatoon for the service.  

Over 300 ultrasounds have been performed in Northern Saskatchewan using the technology, with 80 per cent of those ultrasounds being for prenatal care. Mendez said studies so far have shown that robotic ultrasounds are as good and as accurate as conventional in-person ultrasounds.  

The robotic ultrasound system in Gravelbourg has only been used for tests at this point with prenatal care patients, but Mendez is hoping the service will be available very soon.  

Mendez said the ultimate goal is to scale up the project to reach as many rural and remote communities as possible and adapt it to the regular systems to become a part of the evolution of virtual care. However, he felt robotics would not replace humans.  

“This technology is really unstoppable. It is going to happen. We are going to have in the future a hybrid system where we will be using advanced virtual care technologies with in-person healthcare deliveries,” he said.  

He feels technology will allow healthcare workers, physicians and nurses, to devote more time to look at patients holistically, have more time with patients, and increase the doctor-patient relationship.  

Below you can hear Dr. Mendez’s full interview with Discover Moose Jaw’s Shawn Slaght as well as a video from the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation showing how the system works.