University of Alberta and Cisco collaborate to advance health research

(Edmonton) It's one thing to train physicians how to complete a surgical procedure. It's quite another to give them the tools they need to create a surgical roadmap tailored for each patient, using technological innovation to practise and perfect procedures before even entering an operating room.

That might sound like science fiction, but it's actually far closer to reality-and one of the goals of the University of Alberta's Pierre Boulanger, a world-renowned professor of computing science. Boulanger was appointed Cisco Research Chair in Healthcare Solutions, a new partnership with Cisco Canada designed to advance research, development and innovation in technologies that improve health care and save lives.

"Information and communication technologies have great potential to address many challenges facing health-care systems around the world, including providing accessible, cost-effective, high-quality services," said Boulanger, who is receiving $2 million over 10 years from Cisco Canada to support his research and development program.

Virtual patient models

From his virtual-reality lab at the U of A, Boulanger and his team are developing technologies that bring to life the idea of personalized medicine, creating patient-specific models aimed at improving care and reducing risk for patients.

The idea combines patient information such as MRIs, CT scans and other data to create a model that allows doctors to train for procedures, create 3-D visualizations, conduct simulations and even show patients different treatment options and outcomes. One example of its use involves planning a step-by-step jaw reconstruction following cancer treatment, using bones from the leg and a patient model to determine how to piece everything together, all the way down to which blood vessels to cut, Boulanger said.

"We can actually bring planning for surgery to the level that an engineer would do if you're wanting to repair an airplane," he said.

This idea could be extended to improve training post-surgery, creating an operating room "black box" that would provide a digitized record of everything that occurred every instrument used, along with images and patient data. Similar to black boxes in airplanes, the information could be used to learn from mistakes, train surgical teams and improve performance in order to improve patient outcomes and lessen the likelihood of complications.

Boulanger said this data could be shared remotely via telepresence-going well beyond transmitting voices and images and actually creating remote systems that can capture gesture and touch that will be used for training novice surgeons anywhere in the province or the world.

"Essentially we are trying to recreate the equivalent of actually being there," he said.

One of the first telemedicine projects under development also addresses challenges of providing high-quality care in remote parts of the world, including Northern Canada. Boulanger's team is using technology to remotely monitor a patient's blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen levels or other information and using cloud-based software to store and share data. A simple phone call through a mobile phone could retrieve blood pressure information or send a prescription to a pharmacist, Boulanger said.

Leading edge of innovation

Some of the technology is not that far off in terms of getting it into the hands of clinicians, with strong interest from research and development start-ups and clinical trials. "The goal is to continue developing these new technologies and create an innovation that attracts new people and new ideas, and complements the need for Alberta's health-care system," Boulanger said.

Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Canada, said the research chair will help Cisco and its goal of collaborating with leading research-intensive universities like the U of A and others to foster innovation, increase productivity and support economic and social development.

"The establishment of this chair is the first initiative in a long-term plan to explore the significant role technology can play in improving productivity and health-care service delivery," he said.