One of the biggest telehealth networks in the world is weeks away from a major expansion of its availability in Canada’s largest province.
The Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN), which currently has some 2,200 videoconferencing endpoints in designated rooms in 1,200 hospitals and clinics, is turning to the Internet to let thousands of doctors and nurses access the network from their offices using personal computers.
Initially they’ll be able to more easily consult with colleagues and patients in medical facilities, but ultimately the medical practitioners will be able to contact seriously ill patients in their homes.
After spending several months integrating new software from Vidyo Inc. with its existing platform, 50 health professionals will be able to take advantage of the expanded system early in September, said Dr. Ed Brown, OTN’s chief operating officer. It will expand after that to add thousands of people to the network.
Security is ensured with end-to-end encryption. “If you’re a specialist operating in your own office with a couple of partners, spending $5,000, $10,000 or $20,000 for a piece of (videoconferencing) equipment is more challenging,” he explained in an interview Tuesday.
“So this is a way to get it out there in a lot more places, to make it simpler for them and to enable them to do this wherever they are and not have to trek out to a studio or organize a (telemedicine) room.”
OTN is a five-year-old organization largely funded by the province that leverages the private network run by eHealth Ontario and the Orion fibre optic education and research network. It also links to the Keewaytinook Okimahanak telemedicine program for remote first nations communities in northwestern Ontario.
Video conferencing is OTN’s major application, but the network also offers health professionals the ability to remotely monitor equipment like digital stethoscopes, cameras in clinics, as well as host educational Webcasts.
As one of the large telemedicine providers in the world, it handles 135,000 “patient events” plus 11,000 Webcasts a year so patients in remote areas can have access to experts outside their communities, while clinicians can keep on top of medical trends.
“We’re growing at least 20 to 25 per cent a year in terms of activity,” said Brown. “We have an implementation list of another 200 or 300 sites at the moment.”
OTN also wants to expand into tele-homecare for remotely monitoring seriously ill patients who can’t get to a clinic. From a pilot project involving people with chronic heart problems, the organization learned that, with the coaching from a nurse, hospital stays can be cut by 65 per cent and trips to an emergency ward cut by 70 per cent.