Struggling To Access Essential Services
For the four companies that follow, this concern inspired them to find better ways to keep people connected to the care they require.
There is no arguing that we came up with ingenious ways to stay connected during the pandemic, but for some people, Zoom calls and drive-by visits weren’t enough. For those who depend on community supports, being shut out of essential services was a crisis. Read on to learn about four companies who rose to this challenge.
Grief is the emotional response we feel following a loss. It can be caused by a host of situations, from divorce to losing a job, and, of course, the loss of a loved one. That was the impetus for Grief Stories, a not-for-profit virtual healthcare community resource launched in December 2019 that believes in helping people cope with grief by sharing stories, fostering connections and offering much-needed insights about loss from both trained healthcare professionals and people who’ve been there.
When co-founder Sean Danby’s wife died after battling breast cancer, he suffered from insomnia. “I asked him what he does at 3 a.m. and he told me he goes online and searches for something to make sense of it all,” says Danby’s friend and co-founder Rob Quartly. “What he was finding was all in text form and the last thing he felt like doing at that time of night was reading. So, I said, we’re both filmmakers — why don’t we make a couple of films for people like you.” Those three films have become more than 500. They average about two to three minutes long, and they’re a blend of professionals and lived experiences. The idea, as Quartly tells it, was to support people at whatever stage of grief they were in, but also to make them feel less alone. Users can watch clips that pertain to trauma, suicide and perinatal loss, for example.
The Grief Stories team has created a variety of offerings on its platform — videos, blog posts and a podcast. (They also offer music and art therapy as coping tools for healing.) “Grief is a universal thing, but it’s also a very individual thing. We don’t talk about loss or death in North America, and we want people to feel like they can talk about it or listen to stories about it in their own way. Grief Stories is a community health resource, vetted by healthcare professionals, that’s available 24/7.”
The timing was nothing short of ironic: It had always been seen as a virtual project, but when the pandemic hit, everyone was pushed online. “We knew how to create the content remotely.” Quartly and the team weren’t going into people’s homes, but they were able to guide participants through filming.
The podcast — which is a significant part of the platform — launched in February 2020, just before the lockdowns. It’s hosted by registered social worker Maureen Pollard. She says sharing stories can be very therapeutic. “When we hear stories, we often connect with aspects that resonate with us. When I have a guest who talks about a particular type of loss, such as the death of a partner, there will be some listeners drawn to these stories because they are trying to make sense of their own experience with a similar loss.”
Grief Stories recently launched a new program funded by the Northumberland United Way to expand and develop their content around coping during COVID. “We have videos of professionals talking about how to cope with loved ones in hospitals, dealing with funerals and memorials when you can’t gather and other pandemic-related issues,” says Quartly. The new content aims to help visitors to the platform navigate isolation and loneliness, as well as deal with the anxiety brought on by the pandemic.
“People share their stories and insights and 99 percent of the time they tell us how cathartic and validating it’s been,” Quartly says. “People receiving the content are finding a huge benefit, too. I can see the need for this being executed anywhere. There’s universality to it and we’re on the leading edge of building this kind of community resource.”
“People receiving the content are finding a huge benefit, too. I can see the need for this being executed anywhere. There’s universality to it and we’re on the leading edge of building this kind of community resource.”
Imagine receiving a cancer diagnosis during a global pandemic. Doctors are overworked. Hospitals are full. You feel isolated and alone. It’s a scary time, and now you’re saddled with the news that you have an aggressive disease.
EMRO.Cloud is a new cancer-care-on-demand service that was developed by EMRO Doctors to help patients through their cancer experience. It’s an innovative virtual consulting platform for cancer patients and their families, as well as for cancer-care professionals. Eva Szabo, the CEO and co-founder, was just starting her MBA when COVID-19 hit. “My research has always been in the cancer realm, and it was around that time I realized there are a lot of pain points during a pandemic for cancer patients. They really shouldn’t be going into hospitals with weakened immune systems, and there’s often no need to see their doctors in person for a 20-minute check-in when it can be done virtually,” she says. Szabo and her husband and co-founder, Dr. Brandon Meyers, recognized there was a need to improve care from anywhere — including a patient’s home.
Enter EMRO.Cloud — a digital healthcare platform that’s accessible and safe to use from anywhere at any time. “We wanted it to always be available to patients and physicians. Patients can bring on a support person and family, as well as their healthcare providers. They can get first, second and third opinions from specialists across North America within the cancer field. They can speak with their medical oncologist, the person who gives them chemo, a radiation oncologist and their surgeon. We want everyone under one roof,” says Szabo. “If you want to have a conversation with one of your physicians, you can do that. And those doctors can have conversations with each other about how they’re taking care of you.” She says whether it’s a new cancer diagnosis or a secondary opinion, it’s about the patient getting a full picture of his or her disease. “Being on this platform doesn’t preclude patients from seeing specialists, but it saves them the trip [if they’re unwell or worried about being exposed],” she adds.
The other reason it was developed was Szabo says most doctors don’t have access to video conferencing or a reliable platform they can communicate with patients on. “My husband is a medical oncologist, and he had the same issue for many years — if he wants to speak to a patient, he has to pick up the phone. But there are so many new technologies that doctors should have options.” Healthcare is also moving toward a digital transformation. “We thought it was the perfect time to incorporate all these things that weren’t available years ago but should be now,” she says. (The platform is completely HIPAA and Ontario’s PHIPA compliant.)
The company is currently launching with its first round of physicians. (It’s also trying to raise its first round of funding.) When doctors are onboarded, their patients can also be signed up. There are 10 doctors on the platform, but Szabo and her team have reached out to more than 8,000 in North America, and they’re hoping to ramp up in the next couple of months. “We’ve been getting great feedback. We’ve been told that it’s easy to use and simple for everyone to be on it together. Physicians like the fact that they can take notes, generate reports and a lot of information can be shared between their patients and colleagues. It’s truly a one-stop shop for everything cancer related that patients need.”
If this wasn’t reason enough to support EMRO.Cloud, Szabo says it’s the perfect tool for advocating. “As a patient, it’s up to you to take charge of how you’re going to get treated, just like you take charge of every other aspect of your life. You need to know you can take charge here, too. You’re not just a passenger in this process.”
It was back in 2018 when Dr. Kasra Afsahi started discussing new ways to help stroke patients using virtual reality and artificial intelligence with other professionals and virtual reality specialists. A physician and entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience in management, marketing, business development and operations, Afsahi was no stranger to the process of designing and developing products that helped patients. He believed there was more that could be done to help those who had suffered a stroke recover more successfully. According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, 62,000 strokes occur in Canada every day. While 13,000 Canadians will die, 80 percent of people do survive. Post-stroke, about 60 percent of sufferers are left with some disability, while 40 percent need intense rehabilitation and support.
Recovery Tech Inc. was founded a year later with Afsahi taking the helm as CEO. He and his team are on a mission to help patients with neurological disorders get back to their normal life using a host of new technologies, including virtual reality, mixed reality and AI.
“We designed the product from A to Z with stroke patients in mind,” he says, adding the company designed and developed a game-based VR interactive rehabilitation application that focuses on therapeutic motions that are most beneficial post-stroke.
What they designed is a game-based product that focuses on upper extremity rehab and aims to get patients to increase their range of motion in the shoulders, wrists and elbows. Here’s how the game works: Players grab balls of different colours that are shown on the monitor. They hold them and toss them into baskets of the same colour at the bottom of the screen. The difficulty increases as the game goes on, and players are rewarded after each successful movement.
Virtual reality therapy is at the
cutting-edge of research. According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, a five-year study of six tele-rehabilitation projects found that “technology can be just as effective in delivering post-stroke therapy.” Published in the Journal of Telemedicine and E-Health, research shows that more than 40 percent of stroke sufferers need some rehabilitation, and more than 60 percent need assistance with daily activities when they leave the hospital. Tele-rehabilitation interventions like virtual reality, computer gaming, video conferencing and wearable activity monitors have been shown to be sometimes even better than traditional face-to-face therapy. Some experts believe playing video games can hasten a person’s recovery. Plus, video games are more enjoyable and can be done at home.
When COVID-19 hit, Afsahi thought of patients, and how they might need significant physical, psychological and cognitive rehabilitation post-illness. Recovery Tech researchers studied two clinical research projects (with the cooperation of McMaster University) and found patients of COVID-19-related strokes and post-COVID stroke rehabilitation who used the company’s VR product had better, more successful outcomes. “A VR program implemented on a COVID-19 stroke rehabilitation unit for patients and healthcare providers was rated as highly satisfactory with perceived benefit by survey respondents. Participants commented that the use of VR was useful in coping with isolation and loneliness and could be implemented within the context of clinical care for COVID-19 patients as part of a comprehensive rehabilitation model,” the company’s findings say.
Afsahi has been busy presenting Recovery Tech’s VR products at conferences in places like Vancouver, Paris and New York, where he often receives accolades for his work. “It’s a very exciting time,” he says. “We are working on so much more to come in the future.”
Belleville, Ont.-based non-profit SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Acceptance)-LGBTQ Education and Support Services of Canada Inc. was created in November 2020 by executive director Stacey Love-Jolicoeur, a transgender woman who has a storied history. She came out at the age of nine back in 1968, at a time when her parents and the medical community weren’t ready for trans people.
After facing years of discrimination and bigotry (and eventually after having her gender-affirmation surgery), Love-Jolicoeur was working at a mental health organization when her supervisor was asked if she’d be willing to visit a prison to see a trans person there. She immediately agreed and had an eye-opening experience at the facility — the individual told her there were many people inside who needed someone trustworthy to talk to. She realized how mental health supports for LGBTQ-identifying people were so desperately needed in the prison system. “So, I decided to put together a proposal to start a group. I started in 2014 with 12 people at that institution and word spread through the system like wildfire.”
Today, Love-Jolicoeur works with 13 institutions, seven halfway houses and supports more than 350 LGBTQ offenders. She provides invaluable prison support and educational services for the people she meets inside institutions (via group facilitation and one-on-one peer counselling), she also offers competency training for prison staff, pre- and post-operation support and assistance, and a thriving reintegration program for transgender offenders. She’s the coordinator of TRANSForum Quinte, helping Belleville’s transgender community, and sits on the city’s Inclusion Committee.
Prior to COVID, Love-Jolicoeur typically had group sessions of 25 to 30 offenders in prisons and ran two groups: LGBTQ and friends (for anyone interested in supporting someone who identifies at LGBTQ) and one for people in transition, considering transition or who have already transitioned. “When March 2020 hit, it became a devastating effect for the offenders not to have the support they were used to. I felt for them and decided to purchase a 1-800 line and had it approved through Corrections Canada so it could be on the regular callers’ list at the institutions,” she explains. “Since starting the line, I’ve more than 2,900 phone calls and I take every one of them myself. It’s been a huge transition to adapt in a world where we’re so restricted, but I’ve been able to help people using the number and I’ve continued to do a lot of educational presentations to many organizations — including Corrections Canada, school boards, the Parole Board of Canada and others — via video.” She says she’s spent countless hours speaking to
families, lawyers, the Crown, parole officers and more. “It’s been a constant amount of work and I embrace it as an opportunity from the comfort of my home.” Her program has even started to expand across the country — she’s helped trans people from Nova Scotia and British Columbia.
Outside of her work in prisons, she provides post-op recovery assistance to trans people that includes transportation to and from the hospital in Montreal, and a three-week respite care program offering meal preparation, housework, laundry services, etc. as patients recover from surgery. Over the course of the pandemic, she provided this service to six trans women.
A champion of diversity, inclusion and acceptance, Love-Jolicoeur’s programs are clearly working and making a huge difference in the lives of so many. For instance, she’s had 22 offenders go through her reintegration program and in the last five years, 20 of those individuals have not reoffended — an unheard-of statistic. It’s truly a testimony to her immense passion for helping the LGBTQ community.
Now that the province is starting to open again, she’s hoping to get back to doing her essential work in-person. “It’s a never-ending amount of work to navigate through the system and find the resources to provide the services,” she says ardently. “I do it because it’s so needed. These people are so appreciative of the help and mental health supports we’re able to provide for them. It’s turned into a tsunami of amazement.”
A champion of diversity, inclusion and acceptance, Love-Jolicoeur’s programs are clearly working and making a huge difference in the lives of so many.