Flipping the Healthcare System by Using New Brunswick as a Living Lab

Author: Engineering Alumni Office

Posted on Dec 1, 2017

Category: Research Spotlight

Dr. Erik Scheme (BScEE’03, MScEE’05, PhD’13) is determined to flip Canada’s healthcare system on its head by shifting resources from costly treatment to proactive health intervention. As NB Innovation Research Chair in Medical Devices and Technologies, Scheme is amassing a cluster of individuals and organizations in the medical technologies and healthcare industries in New Brunswick to work on developing solutions to the growing healthcare crisis in the country.

“We’re a province that has high rates of obesity, chronic disease, and healthcare issues associated with aging. Up until now, we’ve taken a reactive approach by treating and managing these problems as they develop. We need to be more proactive and predictive to prevent problems from happening in the first place.” Scheme states with determination.

Scheme believes that New Brunswick is the perfect “living lab” with a competitive advantage. “We’re a microcosm of Canada, and we’re small enough to be so connected to one another that we can make things happen quickly. Instead of 6 degrees of separation there are maybe 2 degrees here. And we have a growing network of people pulling the rope in the same direction. We’re leveraging that social capital to solve real problems, and those solutions can then be replicated across the country.”

The New Brunswick Health Council estimates that 62% of the province’s population is living with one or more chronic diseases1, and The Public Health Agency of Canada says treatment of chronic disease costs the economy $190 billion annually – $68 billion is attributed to treatment and the remainder to lost productivity.2

Scheme says that health and wellness data and innovative medical technologies can save the system billions of dollars and improve quality of life for many Canadians. And he feels that New Brunswick has the world-class researchers, innovators and dedicated support agencies to do the R&D that will make it a reality. “We now need to attract the companies, individuals and funding needed to take these products to market. And we’re beginning to do that.”

Much of the R&D work is being done at the University of New Brunswick’s world-renowned Institute of Biomedical Engineering and the Dr. J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship, both of which Scheme is a part (he’s also Assistant Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at UNB and Adjunct Professor with Dalhousie Medicine NB). But it’s not just academia that’s driving change; healthcare practitioners on the front line, innovative companies and investors, and support agencies on the entrepreneurial side and on the health and biosciences side are also at the table. He’s grown a collaborative cluster of interdisciplinary professionals that includes researchers from Kinesiology, Nursing, Engineering, Psychology, Computer Science, and Medicine as well as surgeons, physiotherapists, dieticians, nurses, and geriatric health workers.  “Just as New Brunswick has seen success in the ICT sector, we have the building blocks in place to do ground-breaking medtech and bio-engineering research, hatch startups with new products, and attract global companies to collaborate with so that we can make a real difference in this space.”

Although Scheme’s background is in biological signal processing and human-machine interfaces, he and his graduate students are doing original research into wearable technology and digital health platforms to help people stay healthy. “Having contextual data, recorded unobtrusively in the home and on the job, will provide caregivers with greater insight. Mobile and wearable devices will allow patients to diagnose basic conditions in the home, hopefully alleviating some of the burden on the healthcare system. At a high level, the data will help us validate and improve different therapies.”

He and his team use the new Health Technologies Lab at UNB to develop tech that will be employed in the living lab that is New Brunswick. They have clinical partnerships to prove and demonstrate the benefits, making new technologies more viable for commercialization. “We’re focussing on research that enables new technology, or developing technologies that enable new research.”

One of their developments is a Smart Cane, a device that monitors the user while they’re walking or standing and communicates information about their stability and how much they’re leaning on their cane. Another project is the Smart Chair, which uses artificial intelligence to tell the user when their posture while sitting is not ideal and rewards them for adjustments and optimal movement during the day.

Scheme’s mandate as NB Innovation Research Chair is to position New Brunswick as a world leader in discovery, innovation and commercialization of medical devices and technologies.  One of the ways to do that is to provide support for small businesses and entrepreneurs that want to build health technology and digital health companies here. Moncton's eChart Healthcare is a great example: the company launched an innovative app for long-term care facilities as a way to replace complicated and outdated pen and paper charts, while also giving family members of patients permissions that enable them to stay up to date on the status of their loved ones. “Accessible technology that’s easy for everyday people to use and leverage for their benefit is the goal,” says Scheme.

The global wearable medical device market is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 14.9% from 2017 to 2022, reaching an estimated $9.4 billion by that year3.  “We have an opportunity to position New Brunswick as a world leader in this sector,” Scheme says excitedly. “We have the expertise and nimbleness to compete with large centres. Combining entrepreneurship with engineering and design creates a powerful platform with real impact.”

1New Brunswick Health Council  https://www.nbhc.ca/sites/default/files/documents/infographic_cost_of_chronic_health_conditions_in_nb.pdf

2Public Health Agency of Canada. Against the Growing Burden of Disease. Accessed on March 9, 2016, from http://www.ccgh-csih.ca/assets/Elmslie.pdf

3Research and Markets. Growth Opportunities in the Global Wearable Medical Device Market. October 2017 https://www.researchandmarkets.com/research/8cnzfx/growth