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New epilepsy monitoring unit a 'game changer' for Manitobans: health minister

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Two new units at Health Sciences Centre mean Manitobans living with medication-resistant epilepsy can access specialized care once again, after a similar facility was shut down, the province says.

Officials announced on Tuesday a new epilepsy monitoring unit and an adjacent neurological recovery unit are now open for patients at the downtown hospital.

The announcement coincided with Purple Day - a day to support people living with epilepsy around the world.

Over 23,000 Manitobans live with epilepsy and seizure disorders.

Of those, HSC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Manon Pelletier estimates 7,000 will benefit from the new monitoring unit.

While most people with epilepsy can manage their symptoms with medication, long-term drug therapy may not be effective. In this case, patients are then referred to an epilepsy monitoring unit to find out why they are not responding to medication, and whether surgery could be an alternative.

Manitoba was once home to a two-bed monitoring unit. It closed in late 2019 due to challenges with staffing and aging clinical equipment.

Since then, patients have been referred out of the province to receive this care or not receive care at all, said Manitoba Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara

“That is not the standard that we set for ourselves as Manitoba. We can and we must do better,” they said.

The new, four-bed adult unit began a phased opening in January, admitting 10 to 12 patients per month. It will be fully operational in the next several months.

Asagwara said this unit will have a dedicated nursing team, something they say is a big step forward.

“This new unit will be a game changer for epilepsy and seizure disorder patients in Manitoba, who will have better access to care that’s crucial to diagnosing, monitoring and treating these patients.”

Pelletier said patients admitted to the unit will stay for days at a time so they can be observed by specialized staff using high-end equipment during waking hours and while asleep.

“Through effective monitoring, we can provide proper assessment and diagnosis, and design better treatment plans earlier in the patient’s journey. This will mean fewer visits to the emergency department, fewer MRIs and other interventions,” she said.

One of four beds in Health Sciences Centres new epilepsy monitoring unit is pictured on March 26, 2024. (Ken Gabel/CTV News Winnipeg)

“Most importantly, it will mean a better quality of life for Manitobans living with epilepsy.”

The unit was opened with $2.4 million from the province, with another $2.5 million earmarked annually for operating costs.

Asagwara said while there is currently a pediatric epilepsy surgical program with a monitoring unit in Manitoba, there is not currently an adult program.

They said the new unit is an important step towards getting such a program, as more adult patients who are candidates for surgery will be identified, with the goal of recruiting more staff to support an adult surgical program.

$500K expansion unit for neurosurgery patients

Meantime, the Health Sciences Centre Foundation has also funded a new, four-bed unit between the new epilepsy unit and the neurosurgery unit.

Dubbed Unit B5B, it is an expansion to the step-down unit for neurosurgery patients, and can increase capacity needed for epilepsy surgery patients.

It opened in December 2023.

The province said because of its location, specialized staff can serve both units.

That unit had a $500,000 price tag and was supported by donors, the foundation said.

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