MSFHR award recipient helps patients living in rural areas manage chronic diseases at home

7 April 2011

The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, in partnership with the BC Ministry of Health Services, Providence Health Care (PHC), Vancouver Coastal Health and the other health authorities of BC, are funding research that will help patients living in remote areas of the province manage chronic diseases at home by using specialized internet-delivered care. Dr. Scott Lear, an Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology at Simon Fraser University, and a recipient of the 2003 MSFHR Scholar award, 2005 HSPRSN Investigative Team award and 2009 HSPRSN Partnership award, is leading the study with his $1 million in research grants.

"While individuals living in large cities benefit from a wide range of services to help with their diseases, such services are not available in remote, rural and small urban areas" (hereafter referred to as "rural"), says Lear. As a result, rural patients are especially vulnerable to the consequences of chronic diseases due to this reduced access to health care. "In fact, rural patients with heart disease are 40 – 50 percent more likely than their urban counterparts to be admitted to hospital due to their condition," observes Lear. "Through our research, we want to deliver care to those people who might not otherwise have access. We want to improve their quality of life, keep them out of hospital and reduce their future risk," he says.

To help address this need, Lear is researching and developing websites that will allow patients to receive specialized care without having to leave home. The websites will be vital tools in supporting patients in their disease management and coordinating care with their family physician.

Working with PHC clinicians, the focus for the websites will be on five high-impact chronic diseases: heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, chronic kidney disease and chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD).

These interactive websites will support patient self-management and patient monitoring, and allow patients to enter their vital signs and symptoms (e.g. weight, blood sugar), track their progress and receive real-time virtual therapy (nutrition, exercise, psychological support, medication adherence and smoking cessation) from specialized health professionals. Specialized health professionals and primary care physicians will be able to track their patients' progress and will be alerted in the case of changes in signs and symptoms that require further intervention.

One website has been completed and others are being developed while patients who'll participate in the rural study are currently being identified.

In earlier pilot tests, Lear found that interactive-based cardiac rehabilitation can be as effective as hospital-based rehab programs.

Lear is currently leading a study of 74 rural heart patients from BC's Sunshine Coast, Whistler and Northern regions. Over the next few years, he plans to continue to study patients from all over BC to help determine if these websites can help improve their care and quality of life while reducing health care costs.

Lear hopes that if proven effective, the model will be expanded to additional rural areas across the province.