Northern Ontarians are used to traveling long distances to see medical specialists but high-speed Internet connections are now bringing doctors north — virtually.
This week the Ministry of Health and Long-Term care pumped an additional $5.7 million into North Network, a program that uses videoconferencing to let rural dwellers in remote regions confer with doctors. North Network relies on the Ministry for its core funding, said Paula Ashley, spokesperson for North Network in Don Mills, Ont.
Initially, the network started up in 1998, linking Kirkland & District Hospital, Lady Minto Hospital in Cochrane, Timmins & District Hospital, and Sunnybrook Health Science Centre in Toronto. Right now, North Network services just upwards of 100 communities in northern and central parts of the province but this new funding will let the organization expand its services to an additional 23 communities in northern and central Ontario, she said.
“We have been going through exponential growth. We’re seeing over 1,000 clinical consultations per month in over 70 different medical specialties,” Ashley said. “In fact, in this first half of the year we’ve actually met the total of last year’s consultations. Each month we beat the previous month’s record.”
To access the services, patients need only to visit a Telehealth studio in their local hospital or doctors office, she explained. It’s simply a small room containing videoconferencing equipment from Cisco Systems Inc. and a high-resolution digital camera and other diagnostic equipment. Sometimes the patients are accompanied by other health care practitioners, Ashley said.
North Network was formed after a provincial government study in 1993 and 1994 determined that about $20 million was being spent on provincial air ambulances to the north, plus $10 million in travel subsidies for patients commuting to urban areas for treatment. Seventy-two per cent of that $10 million was doled out for travel expenses for post-operative treatment, which can be adequately replaced by telemedicine, North Network said.
Another example would be if a patient needed a dermatologist to examine a mole, rash or skin condition. The high-resolution camera would photograph the area, then it would be transmitted to the doctor via a high-speed Internet connection, who could view it and make a diagnosis, Ashley said.