Going the distance: Graduate reimagines the future of health care

It started with a poster, but it soon became her noble cause.

Katie Willis - 08 July 2021

“The limited access to health care in some of Alberta’s rural regions can be a bit shocking if you haven’t experienced it before,” says Talwinder Punni (’16 BSc), co-founder and CFO at Naiad Lab Inc. “I remember asking myself, how is this happening in Alberta, or in Canada? This fuelled us to charge forward.”

Even over a video call, it's clear that Punni’s passion for her work is fierce and genuine. That passion was ignited by a research poster on the wall of Pierre Boulanger’s office. 

“Esmat and I were in Pierre’s office to talk about another project when I saw a poster on his office wall: MedROAD,” she says with a smile. 

The project that caught Punni’s attention, MedROAD, promises to be the future of telehealth, using the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud-based computing to remotely connect patients with health-care professionals—no matter where they are. 

"The MedROAD system is a medical-grade virtual clinic that allows patients and doctors to conduct appointments remotely," explains Esmatullah Naikyar, director and CEO of Naiad Lab. "On the patient's side, there is an Android app that collects data from portable medical-grade devices and sends it to a cloud-based server. The physician can then see this data and communicate with other users via video conference."

Boulanger, professor (computing science) and Cisco Research Chair in Healthcare Solutions, has been conducting research on health care, AI, and remote medicine for years. MedROAD is now a project by Naiad Lab Inc., a spinoff company developed at the University of Alberta by Boulanger with the mission of bringing technology from the lab into the world.

“The MedROAD virtual clinic involves an exchange of medical data that is captured through our system,” adds Boulanger. “Using an intelligent algorithm, health-care professionals can securely look at the trends in vital statistics in any particular patient—for example, moderating medication for a patient who has chronic high blood pressure.”

Powerful partnerships

MedROAD was set up for success early on with an infusion of funding from Cisco Canada. “If it wasn’t for Cisco’s initiative, I do not think we would have had proper funding to drive the project,” says Naikyar. “They have set an exceptional example of industry-funded research that enables educational institutions to advance and create spinoff companies.” 

“This happened because we were at the U of A, with access to the professor and scientists who are experts in their field,” adds Punni. “It is an incredible resource. We’re surrounded by people who are truly extraordinary, who are doing some amazing, almost unbelievable work.”

In February 2020, Punni and Naikyar incorporated the company Naiad Lab. And by September, the company launched its first pilot project in Pincher Creek, Alta., about 200 kilometres south of Calgary. 

The Pincher Creek pilot connects more than 30 patients with physicians in a medical-grade virtual clinic. Many patients are managing chronic health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Tests, such as taking blood pressure and measuring glucose levels, are done remotely, either by a nurse using a kit in the patient’s home or in a remote clinic. At the same time, the patient is in contact with a primary care doctor through the MedROAD multimedia platform, which allows for asynchronous communication.

Early success

Kits like this one are an integral part of the MedROAD system, capturing medical data and relaying results to a patient's care team in real time.

The purpose of MedROAD is to make the lives of care teams and patients easier by providing one secure and centralized place where all of a patient’s medical information is available. And for patients without easily accessible health-care services, MedROAD can make a world of difference. 

“This tool is designed to make the lives of doctors and patients easier,” says Punni. “Lack of access to medical care for patients with chronic issues can quickly snowball into more serious problems with more severe outcomes.”

Punni recounts a story from a patient in Pincher Creek, who worked with a physician in real time to try a new blood pressure medication. Over a few days, the patient and physician stayed connected through the MedROAD interface and it became clear the medication was causing adverse effects. 

“The doctor was able to intervene and adjust at an early stage, avoiding a serious reaction that, if left unchecked, could have meant hospitalization,” said Punni. “This is all the more important when you realize that the nearest emergency room was a long drive from this patient’s home.” 

In addition to helping avoid a harrowing trip to the ER, Punni notes, this type of preventive care and early detection can also save money. The average cost for a hospital stay in acute care in Alberta is $8,007; the Canadian average is $6,098. 

Future focus

Now, the MedROAD team is exploring new partnerships, including with remote communities and Indigenous groups. “Parts of our province are severely underserved in terms of health care,” says Boulanger. “MedROAD hopes to change that.” 

Naiad Lab is also focused on developing AI that will allow the MedROAD system to use predictive modelling to identify and predict patterns. “It will flag things for the doctor, the patient, and the entire care team to be aware of to catch problems early and prevent adverse outcomes,” explains Punni. 

This streamlined process also helps both the doctor and the care team manage large caseloads more easily. And MedROAD also has the potential to help those who live in urban centres but may not have a primary care doctor.

“The data is simple. The numbers for chronic care in our province keep going up,” says Punni. “To me, this shows a need for a new way of managing chronic conditions. There are things we can improve on, and the answer is technology.”