The adult cochlear impact program at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver serves more than 970 people with cochlear impacts, an electronic device inserted into the organ of hearing, the cochlea, that helps to restore hearing.

Because it’s the only adult cochlear implant centre in the province, people who have this surgery traditionally have travelled back to St. Paul’s for follow-up appointments to activate the device and help with programming – also known as mapping – to optimize speech performance. Appointments occur four weeks after surgery, then at periodic intervals for the first year, and then annually for life.

However, a significant number of those 970 patients live outside of the Lower Mainland. This means they bear the added time and costs of travel, meals, gas, parking, hotel, time away from work and potentially ferry to access this care – and that was before COVID-19 added travel restrictions and flooding decimated the province’s highway network. Given that over half of cochlear implant patients are 65 years and older, the cost escalates as most cannot travel alone and need the support of family members or friends. And without the follow-up appointments, care and optimal use of the device can be compromised.

“Even before COVID-19, the team heard from patients that travel time and cost was a barrier for follow-up,” says Jowan Lee, an audiologist at St. Paul’s, who says there had already been discussions about how they could offer a remote virtual option for cochlear implant follow up – one of the first to offer remote programming services in Canada.

When COVID-19 hit, those discussions accelerated, and in December 2020 the team launched the Remote Cochlear Implant Program, enabling implant recipients to undergo mapping of the device through a virtual platform. Starting with Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, and then Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, patients either no longer need to leave their home community for follow-up visits, or have a closer health care centre for their appointments, although the option is always open to travel to St. Paul’s.