Dr. Ivar Mendez (MD) is the provincial head of the Department of Surgery at the USask College of Medicine. (Submitted photo)
Dr. Ivar Mendez (MD) is the provincial head of the Department of Surgery at the USask College of Medicine. (Submitted photo)

Dr. Ivar Mendez: The Robot Will See You Now

Dr. Ivar Mendez is one of the world's leading experts in neuroscience and robotics, neuromodulation, and remote medicine.

By Researchers Under the Scope

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But nine years ago, the award-winning neuroscientist who founded Dalhousie's Brain Repair Centre faced a career dilemma.

Would he accept a senior clinician's position at Harvard University, or would he move to Saskatchewan, to oversee surgery for an entire province?

Today, Dr. Ivar Mendez says he's glad he chose Saskatoon.

"It's been a privilege for me to work with remote communities in Saskatchewan," said Dr. Mendez, provincial head of surgery and a clinical neurosurgeon with the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

This spring, he published Sariri, a book of essays about his travels to remote communities in Bolivia.

He said there are 'commonalities' between Indigenous people in both Bolivia and northern Saskatchewan, in terms of their relationship with the earth and its teachings.

"They have a lot of knowledge and healing that we in Western medicine are not using, but it's very valuable," Mendez said. 

Mendez has made it his mission to bring 'remote presence' robots into nursing stations in 17 fly-in and remote communities across northern Saskatchewan.

In this episode, hear why being able to practice virtual medicine paid off during the Covid-19 pandemic, as lockdowns isolated Saskatchewan's poorest, most remote citizens.

In 2021, midway through the pandemic, Dr. Mendez explains why he took unpaid leave and returned to Bolivia where the coronavirus was ripping through hospitals, killing hundreds of health care workers and thousands of Bolivian citizens.

"There were no ICU beds, no beds at all," said Mendez. "Hundreds of thousands of people were dying."

After he arrived, Dr. Mendez sent countless families personal protective equipment, Bluetooth-equipped medical devices, and he set up real-time consultations with phsyicians so they could monitor sick patients at home.

"They were able to save many lives," said Mendez, noting a 'significantly lower' mortality rate for patients whose family members cared for them at home, compared to those admitted to hospital.  

In this episode, Dr. Mendez also describes a recent trip to Ethiopia, where prenatal care for rural women was nearly non-existent, until teams from Saskatchewan tried giving midwives portable ultrasound kits.

With supervision from obstetricians in urban centres, 17 Ethiopian midwives became 'expert sonographers' offering free pre-natal scans on market Saturdays.

Some women walked for more than ten hours, for their first chance to see their baby.

"When I went back to Ethiopia a couple of weeks ago, they'd done 3,800 ultrasounds -- more than ten times what we ever thought," said Mendez.

"They wanted to know if their babies were healthy." 

In this episode, hear more about Mendez’ lifelong fascination with the human brain, his push to bring stem cell transplants to patients with brain injuries and disease, and why he cares deeply about bringing health care to impoverished communities.

Using 'doc in a box' virtual medicine, clinicians in Saskatchewan now provide direct care to patients in 17 remote communities in northern Saskatchewan including La Loche, Pelican Narrows, and Stony Rapids.

"We have built the most comprehensive remote presence robotic program in Canada, and one of the most advanced in the world," Mendez said.

He predicts virtual care, robotics and artificial intelligence will 'revolutionize' health care.

"It will disrupt the way we practice medicine and I think we will be better, for the way we're using them," he said.