Improving access to ultrasound imaging in northern, remote communities
Access to healthcare services—including access to medical imaging—is an important determinant of health outcomes. This thesis aims to improve understanding of and address gaps in access to ultrasound imaging for patients in northern, remote communities, and advance a novel ultrasound technology with the ultimate goal of improving patient care and health outcomes. This thesis first brings greater understanding of patients’ perceptions of access and factors which shape access to ultrasound imaging in northern, remote communities in Saskatchewan, Canada. A qualitative study was performed using interpretive description as a methodological approach and a multi-dimensional conceptualization of access to care as a theoretical framework. The study identified barriers which patients in northern, remote communities face in accessing ultrasound imaging, and demonstrated that geographic remoteness from imaging facilities was a central barrier. To determine whether disparities in access to ultrasound imaging resulted in disparities in utilization of ultrasound services, two population-based studies assessed the association between sociodemographic and geographic factors and obstetrical and non-obstetrical ultrasound utilization in Saskatchewan. In the first study investigating obstetrical ultrasound utilization, multivariate logistic regression analysis demonstrated that women living in rural areas, remote areas, and low income neighbourhoods, as well as status First Nations women, were less likely to have a second trimester ultrasound, an important aspect of prenatal care. In a second study investigating non-obstetrical ultrasound utilization across the entire provincial population, multivariate Poisson regression analysis similarly demonstrated lower rates of non-obstetrical ultrasound utilization among individuals living in rural and remote areas, individuals residing in low income neighbourhoods, and status First Nations persons. To address the barriers which patients in northern, remote communities face in accessing ultrasound imaging and to minimize disparities in ultrasound imaging utilization as identified in previous studies in this thesis, telerobotic ultrasound technology was investigated as a solution to improve access to ultrasound imaging. Using this technology, radiologists and sonographers could remotely manipulate an ultrasound probe via a robotic arm, thereby remotely performing an ultrasound exam while patients remained in their home community. A clinical trial comparing conventional and telerobotic ultrasound approaches was undertaken, validating this technology for obstetrical ultrasound imaging. To determine the feasibility of using telerobotic technology to establish an ultrasound service delivery model to remotely provide diagnostic ultrasound exams in underserved communities, pilot telerobotic ultrasound clinics were developed in three northern, remote communities. Telerobotic ultrasound exams were sufficient for diagnosis in the majority of cases, minimizing travel or reducing wait times for these patients. This technology was subsequently evaluated during a COVID-19 outbreak in northern Saskatchewan, demonstrating the potential of this technology to provide critical ultrasound services to an underserved northern population and minimize health inequities during the COVID-19 pandemic. An economic evaluation was performed to compare a service delivery model using telerobotic ultrasound technology to alternative service delivery models. Telerobotic ultrasound combined with an itinerant sonographer service was found to be the lowest cost option from both a publicly funded healthcare payer perspective and a societal perspective for many northern, remote communities. This thesis provides key insights for health system leaders seeking improved understanding and novel solutions to improve access to ultrasound imaging in northern, remote communities. Findings suggest that telerobotic ultrasound is a viable solution to improve access to ultrasound imaging and reduce costs associated with ultrasound service delivery. Evidence in this thesis may be used to help improve ultrasound services and health equity for patients in underserved northern, remote communities. Continued respectful collaboration with northern, remote, Indigenous peoples and communities will be a critical aspect to ensure that ultrasound services meet community needs.
Medical imaging, Health services, Health equity
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)