Broader bandwidth needed for sharing of diagnostic images
The Smart Systems for Health Agency has made a major step toward achieving one of the original goals of electronic health: using information technology to provide faster diagnosing of the condition of patients regardless of where they live in Ontario.
Smart Systems (SSHA) has announced an agreement to use broadband network infrastructure from Hydro One Telecom Inc. as the new core for its province-wide system, which hospitals and health clinics can plug into for sharing diagnostic and imaging information electronically.
The agency says the new system should both improve health care and help to better protect patient information privacy. “It will enable the best possible service,” says Paul Kilbertus, a spokesperson for SSHA. “It’s part of our ongoing service improvement initiative.”
Using the Hydro One system will greatly increase the network’s bandwidth capacity, he explains, and allow hospitals and health centres to consolidate their IT functions into one network and reduce costs at the same time.
While being able to participate in a broadband consultation system has obvious advantages for doctors and health care centres in rural and outlying communities, the new network will provide benefits for hospitals in the major urban areas as well, adds Kilbertus.
It will be late next year before the rollout of the new system is complete, but many facilities are already anxious to get on with it, according to SSHA. That process will begin with a pilot implementation project among six hospitals in the Huron Perth Region in southwestern Ontario, who will exchange electronic diagnostic images, rather than couriering x-rays, MRIs and CAT scans on film to central locations.
“This is a new way of doing things, as we did not have the bandwidth to do it before,” says Babette MacRae, project director for the Southwest Ontario DI (diagnostic images) Project. “Patients benefit because they now have access to specialists nearby or in London to view and evaluate their images.”
Grey Bruce Health Services, South Bruce Grey Health Centre and the Hanover and District Hospital will also use the broadband network to improve the performance of its Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system, says Rob Croft, Grey Bruce’s corporate director of system integration and projects.
The health care centre is also using the network to send diagnostic images from rural hospital sites without radiologists to hospital sites where these specialists work. Using the new system can reduce the time required to compile a DI report from two to three days down to only one hour.
The job over the next year for SSHA will be getting 24,000 hospitals, centres and other health care points of contact onto the new network, which offers unprecedented bandwidth and security capabilities. “Meeting the current and rapidly growing network needs of health care in Ontario means we partner with many network suppliers, taking advantage of their areas of expertise,” says Linda Weaver, SSHA’s chief technology officer.
SSHA was founded four years ago by the provincial government to develop an electronic health record for all Ontario residents and to link 150,000 hospitals, doctors, clinics and home care providers into its network known as Ontario Network for e-Health (ONE).
So far, the agency has about one fifth of all the contact points connected to the ONE network. This includes all public hospitals, community care access centres and public health units.
Hospitals require high bandwidth to meet existing demand, help deploy new applications and support information consolidation, says Kilbertus. Continuing care organizations and physicians are also being connected.
Kilbertus says work on the ONE network began five years ago and in that time, the technology has changed a lot as the demands on the system grew. SSHA was using multiple private sector suppliers to create its network.
In addition to the DI function, the ONE network is used by emergency departments to check Ontario Drug Benefit information, by public health officials dealing with disease outbreak management and for doctors to track medical records. There were 25,000 patient-physician videoconferences on the system during 2006.
“This is good news for patients,” says William Albino, SSHA’s new CEO. “It is a dramatic step up for us in terms of value for our health care clients. By working together, we are able to meet the goals of network reliability, availability, security, cost-effectiveness and flexibility to meet growing needs in a way that makes the most sense.”
The deal with Hydro One Telecom had been under negotiation for some time, says Kilbertus. Hydro One Telecom is a wholly owned subsidiary of Hydro One, the provincial electricity distributor, and offers broadband telecommunications hardware and software to carriers, ISPs, and large public and private sector customers. It owns more than 4,000 kilometres of fibre-optic network.
Alex Binkley is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. He can be reached at [email protected]