Canadian McGuinty government investment in telemedicine brings health care to northern Ontarians

Kenora 09 August 2004The McGuinty government is improving health care in northern Ontario by investing $5,7 million in telemedicine technology to deliver health services to more northern communities, according to Minister of Health and Long Term Care, George Smitherman. The NORTH Network provides telemedicine services in northern and central Ontario and supports over 100 sites, including 65 hospitals, 11 nursing stations and three regional cancer centres. The Northern Ontario Remote Telecommunication Health (NORTH) Network delivers a wide range of health services in areas such as psychiatry, dermatology, cardiology, neurology, burn management, paediatrics, and geriatrics.

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"Telemedicine is proof of the power of technology in delivering quality health care over vast distances", stated George Smitherman. "This investment in NORTH Network will enable thousands of northern Ontarians to receive care in their own communities instead of having to travel away from their homes and families."

Telemedicine uses video-conferencing telecommunications and digital technology, including electronic stethoscopes, to virtually connect patients to health professionals. There have been over 5300 medical consultations through NORTH Network so far in 2004, compared to a total of 5100 in 2003.

"It's gratifying to know that telemedicine is acknowledged as part of the creative solution to the transformation of health care in Ontario", stated Dr. Ed Brown, Executive Director, NORTH Network. "NORTH Network is pleased to continue to work with our many partners towards the integration of this technology into mainstream health care delivery for Ontarians."

"Our government is changing health care by bringing care to all Ontarians as close to home as possible", stated Rick Bartolucci, Minister of Northern Development and Mines. "NORTH Network is one way we are achieving this commitment and improving the health and quality of life of northern Ontarians."

Telemedicine reduces wait times for health services. Patients wait less than two weeks for telemedicine appointments through NORTH Network, compared to waiting five weeks for out-of-town consultations with specialists. "Telemedcine is attracting health professionals to practise in rural and underserviced areas because it transports the clinical and educational expertise of teaching hospitals to even the most remote communities", explained George Smitherman.

"This announcement is important news for people living in northern Ontario who experience barriers accessing health care", stated Chief Charles Fox, Head of Chiefs of Ontario. "It's one more step towards creating a health care system that responds to community needs, and is available to all."

The NORTH Network is one of three telemedicine networks in Ontario using technology to improve access to care. The province is providing $8 million in funding for the three networks in 2004/05 including $5,7 million to NORTH Network. NORTH Network currently links over 100 sites, mostly in the North, including 65 hospitals, 11 nursing stations and three regional cancer centres. The network will be expanded to 50 more sites in 2004/05. It is the largest telemedicine network in the province linking remote northern communities to specialists and hospitals in Thunder Bay, Sudbury and in the southern Ontario.

Earlier this year, the NORTH Network celebrated its 10.000th telemedicine consultation and the total is now 14.700. NORTH Network has made possible 5355 medical consultations so far this year, compared to a total of 5164 in 2003. Patients wait less than two weeks for a telemedicine appointment through NORTH Network whereas they may have to wait five weeks or more for an out of town, face-to-face appointment with a medical professional.

In addition to reducing waiting times for northern patients, NORTH Network is also helping to reduce the costs associated with travel for medical services. Over the last two years, the average cost for a telemedicine consultation was just under $11 compared to over $290 for each patient to travel out of town to see a specialist. This made possible savings totalling $1,26 million to the Northern Health Travel Grant programme between April 2001 and March 2003.

NORTH Network supports consultations in 70 medical specialities including cardiology, burn management, dermatology, general surgery and internal medicine. Seventy-five percent of telemedicine service activity involves patient services with the remainder being used for consultations between health professionals and training purposes. There have been over 1600 educational sessions, courses and conferences held over the Network facilities since October 2002.

There are two other telemedicine initiatives serving Ontarians: VideoCare and CareConnect. VideoCare provides services in southwestern Ontario at 45 hospital sites, two regional cancer care centres and three family medical centres while CareConnect serves eastern Ontario with links to 36 hospitals.

Via telemedicine, a health professional is "transported" to a patient at a distant health care facility using satellite video technology. Using this video link, and special medical instruments such as electronic stethoscopes or special cameras, the physician can assess patients as if they were in the same office.


Leslie Versweyveld

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