Original Published on Aug 26, 2022 at 15:30

By Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The northern village of Pelican Narrows has been waiting for an X-ray machine since 1996.

It finally got one this summer.

Pelican Narrows, along with two other Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN) communities — Deschambault Lake and Southend — are the first communities in Canada to get ultra-portable X-ray machines through a partnership with Synthesis Health.

The machines, which are about as small and easy to use as a digital camera, will help people get diagnoses and treatments without having to leave home.

After a front line health-care worker takes an X-ray, it’s uploaded to Synthesis’s system, where an artificial intelligence program screens it for any abnormalities. Then, the X-ray is also read by a Saskatchewan-licensed radiologist, and patients can usually get their results within 24 hours.

Dr. Deepak Kaura, a Calgary-based radiologist and the chief medical officer for Synthesis Health, said the company has been developing an artificial intelligence program for chest X-rays since 2018. It was approved by Health Canada in 2020.

“The idea for this started with exactly the situation that (PBCN) is in, where people at the front line of care just don’t have access to diagnostics on site,” Kaura said. “So their patients need to travel all these almost-ungodly distances to try and get access to simple diagnostics.”

The project was funded by a grant from Canada’s Digital Supercluster, so it “hasn’t cost anything for the health system in each of these communities,” Kaura said.

Genevieve St. Denis, the preventative health manager for PBCN health services, said the program is the first of its kind in Canada, and is “just a huge breakthrough for our communities.”

“I’m very excited. I’m happy for the members of our communities, because now they can get timely access to services. They can get efficient diagnosis, treatment planning, and followup care that can be done right on site in their home community. 

“They don’t have to travel miles and miles or wait for days to be sent further down south.”

St. Denis said there’s been a lot of excitement about the new machines, and some communities wanted to start scheduling X-ray clinics as soon as possible, but to leave enough time for everyone to get comfortable with the machines and the software, they’re waiting until Oct. 1 to open the clinics to everybody.

“Our staff are very excited,” St. Denis said. “They were very receptive of the X-ray machines. They got right in, rolled up their sleeves and just started using them.”

These X-ray machines will be particularly helpful for controlling the spread of TB in northern communities — including the current outbreak in Pelican Narrows, where cases are “skyrocketing,” St. Denis said.

The X-rays can help health-care workers screen for TB, along with pneumonia, heart problems and some kinds of cancers. For the moment, they’re limited to chest X-rays, but Synthesis hopes to expand its services to arms and legs.

Kaura said the enthusiasm for these first three X-ray machines has been heartening, and shows just how much this type of technology is needed in remote and northern communities.

“I think what we’re doing here is going to herald in a new way of practising medicine in Canada,” he said.

This item reprinted with permission from The StarPhoenix, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan