Northern Ontarians are used to traveling long distances to see medical specialists, but high-speed Internet is now bringing doctors north — virtually.
Recently the Ministry of Health and Long-Term care pumped an additional $5.7 million into North Network, a program that uses video-conferencing to let 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 about 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, 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.
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 determined that about $20 million was being spent on provincial air ambulances, plus $10 million in travel subsidies for patients commuting to urban areas for treatment. Most of the $10 million was doled out for travel expenses for post-op treatment, which can be adequately replaced by telemedicine, North Network said.