A project to develop healthcare-boosting tech for patients in rural Scotland has been officially launched by the Finance Secretary.
It is hoped the work of new firm SkyeLab can play a “pivotal role” in improving the lives of people living on the islands and in remote areas.
This could include better training for medical staff, improved connectivity and the introduction of schemes such as prescription-delivering drones.
It comes after an independent review in 2018 recommended the creation of a centre of excellence in training and digital innovation for Skye, Lochalsh and South West Ross.
As part of this, SkyeLab has been launched as a community interest company (CIC).
Within its first year, it aims to create training space, a “shop window” to demonstrate emerging technologies, and a lab for research and development.
Ronald MacDonald, one of its founding directors, said: “The pandemic has highlighted the important role that digital technology can have in enabling access to, and in the provision of, health and social care services.
“This is especially relevant for a remote rural area such as Skye and Raasay.
“The creation of SkyeLab should help all in our community have better access to the relevant health and social care facilities.”
From launch, the Portree facility is offering health organisations training facilities for staff and volunteers.
And while patients will not see an immediate physical change, in the same way they would the roll-out of new technology, Prof MacDonald said the pay-off will come further down the line.
He added: “Often in remote and rural areas it’s very difficult to attract and retain staff at various levels.
“In his review, Sir Lewis Ritchie emphasised the importance of being able to offer people education and training close to where they live and work.
“That is a very important aspect of it because we need these models to be sustainable, especially in these remote areas.
“It’s already being used by the ambulance service, as they no longer need to go to Inverness or Fort William, for example, for training – they can do it with the digital connections we have at SkyeLab.”
It is thought tech firms from across the world could look to the centre of excellence when choosing where to trial new initiatives.
Remote parts of the Highlands have already had first looks at other pioneering schemes, such as the Near Me video consultation service and “endoscopy in a pill” Scotcap project.
By April 2022 the company plans to establish the Living Lab, which will fund research and development into new digital services.
Prof MacDonald said: “We are hoping to be innovative, and we’ve seen quite a lot of that during the pandemic.
“This could be in terms of giving people better access to prescriptions.
“There have been trials using drones to deliver prescriptions which could be very important in this area.
“The Isle of Raasay have had problems getting prescriptions there when the weather is bad, so a drone might be the way to do it.
“But, more generally, SkyeLab will offer firms the ability to come and trial new digital methods in return for having a base where they can work.”
Centre can play ‘pivotal role’
In her opening speech this morning, Finance Secretary and MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, Kate Forbes, said she was “delighted” to be officially opening the lab.
“This is exactly the kind of innovative, community interest company that can make a real impact,” she added.
“I look forward to watching SkyeLab deliver its mission, including providing local volunteer training and demonstration resource as well as its Living Lab research programme.
“I hope that SkyeLab will play a pivotal role in the use of tech in healthcare in remote and island communities long into the future.”
Fellow founding director Anne Gillies said: “In May 2018, Sir Lewis Ritchie gave us a vision of what healthcare could look like on Skye, at a time when it seemed that services in rural areas were being decimated.
“Community representatives responded enthusiastically to work with all the various healthcare bodies to make his vision a reality and huge strides have already been taken towards it.
“SkyeLab can play a significant role in the process, starting with training but potentially becoming a major force in research and development of rural healthcare.
“It is enormously encouraging to see such progress.”
Campbell Grant, the chairman of Sitekit Ltd and another founding director, said: “Digital technology and demographic changes mean society is also changing rapidly and this includes how health and care services are delivered both formally and informally.
“My vision for SkyeLab is that remote and rural communities like ours” can lead this transformation, rather than follow, and this creates opportunity.”