First Nations in Saskatchewan using app to improve mental healthcare
Source: Canadian Healthcare Technology by Jerry Zeidenberg

SASKATOON – Several indigenous groups in Saskatchewan are deploying an app that tethers people with mental health and addictions issues to healthcare professionals, so they are in constant communication with a caregiver. In this way, patients are at less risk of self-harm and are connected to resources that can help improve their quality of life.

“First Nations communities are historically and disproportionately affected by trauma, depression, suicide and substance abuse and our families are no longer prepared to wait,” said Big River First Nation Chief Jack Rayne in a prepared statement.

“Through this First Nations-owned app, we hope to make a positive and sustainable impact today and for future generations. Our health team felt that distance was sometimes a problem in accessing health support. This app will remove those barriers and fill those gaps.”

At a Zoom press conference in May, Chief Rayne announced the partnership with TryCycle Data Systems Inc., of Ottawa, which has developed the app over the past 12 years. In an innovative stroke, the Big River First Nation and several partners are offering the app to their people in both English and Cree.

Additionally, the TryCycle platform is adding the Dene, Soto and Dakota Sioux languages, to increase its ease-of-use for First Nations peoples.

In this way, the solution is a co-development project with a good deal of input from the First Nations of Saskatchewan. “Our own people are helping our own people,” said Chief Rayne at the press conference.

The TryCycle app is already being used in 15 First Nations communities to connect patients with caregivers. Other partners include the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous nations (FSIN), the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association (SFNVA) and Indigenous Services Canada.

The partners are financing the project on their own, and they are co-developing the technology and the Cree/English interface with TryCycle. The system will incorporate traditional medicine and healing practices, along with existing medical services and supports.

By offering the app in Cree and other First Nations languages, the system adds a large measure of cultural sensitivity and privacy. Many of the patients feel more comfortable discussing their issues in their native languages; doing so also creates a stronger bond with their caregivers.

As FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron explained, “This app … is much needed for our Elders or those who only speak their language. It removes some of the barriers that our First Nations people face when they access the healthcare system.”

Grand Chief Steven Ross, of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association, commented that, “Our veterans are often residential school survivors who are under great stress and in need of crisis intervention.”

Additionally, they can be suffering from PTSD, which only adds to their burden. Chief Ross said the TryCycle app will improve the engagement that indigenous vets have with healthcare professionals.

TryCycle is currently being used in five Canadian provinces, three territories and in four U.S. states. It was initially developed to help with the opioid crisis and has since expanded its capabilities to cover a wide variety of social and mental health issues, including depression, substance abuse and self-harm.

Company president John MacBeth, speaking at the announcement in Saskatoon, said it will soon be used in Australia and South America, too. The strength of the system is that it tethers patients to skilled professionals, in a compassionate way, and in the language of the user.

MacBeth explained that the app is customized for each patient and can be set up to check-in with patients daily, every couple of days or weekly, depending on the need. Overall, it takes no more than five minutes per week for the patient to answer quick questionnaires.

By doing so, a nurse or social worker can see how the patient is doing, and whether quick action and support is needed.

Working with Microsoft, IBM and Roche, moreover, TryCycle has devised algorithms that use artificial intelligence to detect problems – even without the input of the patient or caregiver. For example, if there is a change in the pattern of the patient’s responses, the system will flag it.

Similarly, the system can detect changes in the usage of a patient’s smartphone that can be associated with mood changes, such as depression or anxiety. This, too, can be used to alert a caregiver. “We want to avert problems before they happen,” said MacBeth. “We look for behavioural insights to determine if the patient is at risk of harm or not.” Said FSIN vice chief Heather Bear, in reference to her colleagues’ deployment of TryCycle: “Less people will suffer because of what you’ve done.”

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