U of A's robot rehab project hopes pandemic increases user comfort with virtual health care

A University of Alberta research team is hoping increased use of video conferencing leads to more participation in virtual health-care pilot.

Increased video-conferencing may boost willingness to book virtual appointments

A demonstration at the University of Alberta's rehabilitation robotics lab shows how a robot with a video screen allows a specialist to monitor patient movement from another location. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

A side-effect of the pandemic is an increased willingness to use technology. And researchers at the University of Alberta hope that will translate into an equal boost in the willingness of doctors and patients alike to try virtual health-care.

Months before the pandemic hit Edmonton in March, researchers at the U of A's rehabilitation robotics lab started a project called Tele-Rehabilitation 2.0.

Tele-Rehab 2.0, as it is dubbed, offered injured Albertans in Jasper, Grande Prairie and Peace River the opportunity to get a rehabilitation assessment done remotely by a clinician in an urban hub. It uses a variety of technology, including a video screen on a wheeled robot, that allows them to get a closer look at the injury and the movement.

It would save patients from driving for four hours or more to Edmonton. The larger implication would be a new way of providing service to about 24 per cent of Albertans who live in rural areas, according to the project website.

Initially, the team experienced a reluctance from both doctors and patients to participate, with in-person visits seen as an easier alternative.

Video quality and internet bandwidth were cited as easy outs for those without the patience to work through the new process.

A motion capture program by Kinetisense, one of the new pieces of technology being used in the project, plays on a laptop in the U of A's rehabilitation robotics lab. (Codie McLachlan)

"The patient may not be sufficiently tech-savvy to be able to make it work successfully. and so we can always talk ourselves out of doing things right," said Martin Ferguson-Pell, a professor at the faculty of rehabilitative medicine.

"I think there was a certain amount of rationalizing why we shouldn't do it," he said. "What happened with COVID, we had to start rationalizing as to why we should."

But after mid-March, physical distancing requirements and the shift for many Albertans to work from home forced them to get familiar with video-conferencing programs and become better at troubleshooting technical situations. 

This has increased the rehab robotics team's optimism about people's willingness to participate in virtual health-care.

Earlier this week, a thunderstorm created reception issues during a virtual assessment. The team saw a resiliency that may have not existed before.

"The flexibility that the clinicians had was really incredible," said Emily Armstrong, project co-ordinator for Tele-Rehabilitation 2.0. 

"I think that a lot of that has come from the patience that everyone's had to have because of COVID, just trying to make it work because this is the only way we can do this stuff."

The project has assisted four patients with assessments so far and the team plans to do more until November before its funding ends in December.


Travis McEwan


Travis McEwan is an award-winning video journalist. Originally from Churchill, Man., he's spent the last decade working at CBC Edmonton. Email story ideas to travis.mcewan@cbc.ca