Alberta researchers want to improve transitional system for people with disabilities

Dr. Chester Ho, professor at the University of Alberta, says for years, patients with spinal cord injuries have been ringing the alarm about not having the same kind of access to disability care as those living in urban areas.

“We hear time after time from our patients that after they leave Glenrose or Foothills, they feel like they are falling off a cliff because although they got excellent services at these two regional centres… once they leave, it’s a whole different story,” explained Ho, who works in the division of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Ho, his assistant professor Adalberto Loyola-Sanchez and his team are looking for ways to make that transition period smoother for outpatients by exploring a model of transitional care that works like a hub and spokes system, akin to Alberta’s system of major and minor airports.

Edmonton and Calgary will primarily act as hubs, providing spinal cord injury specialty services and information to patients on managing their conditions.

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Whereas, health-care providers in communities outside of the two cities will be the spokes, providing ongoing care and support for outpatients in the community.

Ho says health-care providers in smaller communities that don’t regularly deal with spinal cord injuries often don’t have the experience or resources to manage the chronic issues that stem from the condition.

The four-year project was awarded a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s new Transitions in Care initiative. Several other entities have contributed funding for the project, totalling around $1 million.

Marty Rehman is one of Ho’s patients. Rehman, a Red Deer resident, sustained a spinal cord injury after falling and was left paralyzed from the neck down.

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He spent nearly a year at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary before moving back home.

During his recovery process, he experienced some major roadblocks.

“There’s really no applicable therapy or equipment in the Red Deer Hospital,” Rehman said.

“They don’t really have anything as an outpatient for the physiotherapy. There’s nothing there that will help me improve.”

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But then Ho stepped in to find a resolution to help Rehman get the adequate rehabilitation care he needed.

“He got me hooked up with the therapist in Lacombe., Alta. It’s about a 50-kilometre drive from here,” he added.

Rehman has since met others in the same situation, who’ve had to commute from out of town in to receive care, further highlighting the need for more rehabilitation programs and equipment across the province.

Rehman says he received excellent care in Lacombe and is now able to have some movement in his arms, which has allowed him to operate a wheelchair with a joystick instead of having to use a chin-controlled wheelchair.

Ho’s study is expected to be completed by 2023.

Currently, both Lethbridge and Slave Lake are participants in the pilot project, however, the team is hoping to eventually expand the number of spokes to cover the entire province.

The researchers’ plan is to build capacity in spoke communities and constant communication between the hubs and spokes wherein patients with spinal cord injuries will experience a more consistent level of care, along with fewer complications in their lives.

Read more: Canadians with disabilities struggling financially due to coronavirus pandemic: survey

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The Claresholm & District Transportation Society is a non-profit that has been helping bridge the gap for nearly two decades by helping provide rides to seniors and those with disabilities to their medical appointments.

“We’ve had [a situation]… where they had to discharge somebody and they did it at eight o’clock at night,” said Howard Paulsen, chair of the Claresholm & District Transportation Society.

“They were calling up our transportation service because they had no other way of getting home, so we will pick them up and bring them back home.”

He added that their drivers are qualified professionals who often go out of their way to offer clients personal safety and comfort.

Paulsen says with doctor appointments being daunting enough, those using their services have expressed gratitude for the drivers being there for them in support.

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