| Closing the distance

A neurosurgeon uses technology to reduce disparities in medical care and education in remote areas

“Two worlds, One spirit,” a collection of photography and sculpture by Ivar Mendez, the chairman of the Brain Repair Centre at Dalhousie University, was on display at Musée des Maîtres et Artisans du Québec. His black and white photographs capture the sharp boundary where dark, coniferous forests meet snow-covered mountain slopes in Northern Labrador. This landscape is marked not only by tremendous beauty, but also by human suffering.

Mendez, a trained neurosurgeon, explores humanity’s struggles through art, while seeking to alleviate it through medicine and technology. I sat down with Mendez prior to a discussion on his work on September 24, which was organized by former McGill professor, Dr. Norman Cornett.

In recent years, Mendez has made headlines by facilitating the adoption of remote-presence robots to provide specialist neurological consultation services in remote areas of Canada. Remote-presence robots allow physicians to operate in a clinic thousands of kilometers away, using a video game-like joystick to move a robot throughout. These robots can rotate 360 degrees, and have a monitor that shows a live-feed of the physician. In addition, they are equipped with high-resolution cameras and sound equipment, allowing for real time examination and interaction with patients. Despite the unusual experience of interacting with a robot, Mendez says that patients, family, and staff quickly adapt to this futuristic associate.

In Canada, as well as in Mendez’s native Bolivia, aboriginal populations – often located in remote areas – suffer disproportionately from lack of access to specialist care due to distance and climate. Mendez excitedly speaks about the potential to expand such services and take expertise to where it is needed most.
“To listen to the heartbeat of a baby in the mother’s womb thousands of kilometers away,“ Mendez said. “[to] determine which mothers are at risk.”

He views technologies such as remote-presence robot systems as a means of reducing disparity and providing equal access to medical care, even in remote areas such as the Canadian arctic. These communities, too, are quickly accepting and integrating technologies. Mendez describes a community in Northern Labrador that, after the province proved unwilling to purchase a remote-presence robot, came together to raise funds to do so independently.

Though he has helped found neurosurgical units Asia, Africa, and South America, Mendez’s interest in technology is not limited to the medical field. In another initiative, presently in its second year, children in Inuit communities in Northern Labrador are provided with laptops and put in touch with children from Nova Scotia and the Bolivian Andes.

“These kids can communicate with art, math, and music,” he said. “[This] instills in children the idea that, no matter who we are, our contributions have the same value.”

Mendez also emphasizes the importance of investing in cross-cultural exchanges. He described a school in the north of Canada where, for the first time, two students have entered 12th grade, and will be the first two high school graduates in several years. Communicating with graduating students in Nova Scotia via the laptops motivated these students to continue their education. In this way, the introduction of innovative technologies can provide services to people who lack access, and offer these communities a means for growth.

“The change will come from within,” Mendez said. “We can help provide the environment for the children to one day become the leaders of the future, and change their own communities.”