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Virtual health care is a priority for the Canadian Medical Association, and the pandemic has underscored the urgency, says CMA president Ann Collins.MIND_AND_I/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a long-term care home, a dementia patient is taking a virtual walk in the forest: With a wave of their hands, and the help of augmented reality (AR) technology, the scene changes to fluttering butterflies, ducks in a pond or other nature scenes.

The Virtual Forest program is an interactive game that helps to engage the senses of people living with dementia.

“That kind of cognitive stimulation can really bring a lot to quality of life,” says Valerie Larochelle, co-founder of Montreal-based Eugeria, a technology company that provides digital products and services for people with Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline and their caregivers.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have incredible potential for virtual health care, says Ms. Larochelle, particularly when it comes to aging to help seniors stay in their homes longer.

“If we can use these to better our solutions and services for people who want to continue living independently at home, that is something we’re striving to work on,” she says.

The deployment of 5G technology in Canada will enable these AI and ML solutions, which require faster speeds and lower latency, or lag, than are possible with the current 4G technology, she says.

Eugeria’s core business is importing technologies developed in other jurisdictions where 5G deployment is further along compared to Canada.

The company is also part of ENCQOR, the Canada-Quebec-Ontario partnership focused on research and innovation in the field of 5G disruptive technologies, which is working on developing homegrown innovations in the field. Examples include hearing devices that use ML and voice-recognition software to help the wearer understand what is being said; or AI-driven assistive technology that takes smart apartments for dementia patients to a whole new level, reminding them of mealtime or medications, even alerting caregivers to potential wandering.

“All of this requires a lot of processing. And, if you have it in the device, then it’s almost impossible – but if it’s done on a 5G network, then it becomes possible,” Ms. Larochelle says.

Prioritizing virtual care

In early 2020, before the pandemic shutdowns across Canada, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) released a road map to improve virtual health care, with 19 recommendations including national standards for patient health information access. Virtual health care is a priority for the CMA and the ensuing months of pandemic public health measures and closures underscored the urgency, says CMA president Ann Collins.

“It was a necessity for patients and physicians,” says Dr. Collins, whose personal practice stayed open with a combination of virtual and in-person care. “Virtual health care has been around for a long time and Canada was probably lagging behind in its adoption until the pandemic catapulted into that world.”

A May, 2020, Abacus Data survey commissioned for the CMA showed nearly half of Canadians visited a doctor using virtual care and that patients were “highly satisfied” with the results. Among those who used virtual care since the pandemic, almost half said they prefer it as their first point of contact.

But the expansion has also highlighted connection issues, Dr. Collins says. Virtual care requires video to be effective since physicians often need to see their patients.

“That brings in issues around broadband; it brings in issues around the technology and equipment to do that both on the physicians’ end and as well on the patients’ end,” Dr. Collins says.

Closing the digital divide

AR and virtual reality (VR) are some of the most exciting innovations in health care, but require the real-time, mobile processing power of 5G, says Ryan McLaughlin, senior economist and research analyst at the Information and Communications Technology Council of Canada.

“5G could really be the thing that is necessary to enable [AR and VR] technology,” Mr. McLaughlin says, in particular for patients in remote communities. For instance, 5G could help provide immersive, VR mental health supports to people in Canada’s North from therapists anywhere in Canada.

It’s uncertain when or if 5G would arrive in remote communities, he says, given that many still don’t have cellular service.

Ottawa has long prioritized closing the digital divide, Mr. McLaughlin adds. The government is rolling out a much-anticipated auction of mobile telecommunications bandwidth necessary for 5G rollout, while setting aside a portion for smaller companies in some areas.

“Whether or not 5G is going to help close that digital divide, it’s just unclear at this point,” he says.

There are already more and more health care services available virtually, he points out.

Helping to close the health care divide doesn’t necessarily mean full deployment of the technology in every community, but access to 5G in smaller cities and communities outside major urban areas would itself be a big step, he suggests.

“For example, if you live in a remote community, it’s not such a big deal to drive one or two hours into the bigger town in order to visit a clinic and have an AR/VR meeting. So even if you don’t have coverage where you are, if 5G is within an hour or two drive, you could still yield some of the benefits,” he says.

Health care is a priority area for 5G technology because of the rising costs and limits to in-person access, Mr. McLaughlin says, but the possibilities abound. The advanced technology could open previously unthinkable options, including free trade in health care, where Canadian patients could consult a doctor in Finland from their living room or a Canadian psychologist could treat virtually a patient in Korea, he says.

“It’s exciting and I think it’s going to happen. I think we’re going to be a little bit behind some of these other countries but that’s just the way Canada usually is. We’re a fast follower,” Mr. McLaughlin says.

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