Telemedicine network hinges on face-to-face video experience

The Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) is using two-way video conferencing to meet emergency needs in remote locations, educate doctors and ultimately better save and improve the lives of patients.

“Video is really our bread and butter service,” says Dr. Ed Brown, CEO of OTN, who adds that video conferencing allows clinical care to be performed by healthcare providers to remote locations and, through add-ons like hand-held exam cameras and digital stethoscopes, provide sophisticated detail not previously available.

The Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) is one of the largest telemedicine networks in the world. The healthcare organization uses two-way videoconferencing to provide access to care for patients in every hospital and hundreds of other healthcare locations across Ontario.

Although remote clinic care is the primary use for OTN’s infrastructure, the organization also facilitates distance education of doctors and other healthcare professionals, as well as meetings for healthcare professionals and patients. It is a very active service, says Brown with more than five new training and education events are created every hour by the health community.

OTN’s first application for emergency care, telestroke, is an eight-year success story. The first-of-its-kind telemedicine application provides emergency physicians with immediate 24/7 access via video to neurologists with expertise in stroke care who can assess and treat patients experiencing acute stroke.

“In the first three or four hours of a stroke there’s an opportunity to provide a drug that can break down the blood clot causing the stroke. It doesn’t help much after that,” Brown says. The challenge is that if given to the wrong person the drug can be dangerous—that’s where video-based telemedicine comes in.

“A lot of places don’t have that expertise and we’re able to connect them to expert neurologists who can provide immediate advice from their offices, or even their homes at night, to those emergency rooms.”

Reaping Further Benefits from On-Demand Video

In order to meet healthcare’s exacting demands, OTN’s video conferencing system needs to be secure, simple and reliable. “Healthcare professionals are busy people and if they see the blue screen of death you may never see them again. Adoption is a key feature in e-Health,” Brown says.

Reliability is of critical importance, since a dropped connection won’t always mean a meeting gets postponed. In e-Health, issues of life and death could literally be hanging on the line. Security is further needed to meet strict standards around privacy.

It was with those needs in mind that OTN turned to Cisco for the IP-based infrastructure on which its video network is built. Brown notes that Cisco had the expertise, equipment and skills needed to support a province-wide network. Cisco video and TelePresence equipment is also the core of OTN’s network—one of the largest multi-enterprise networks in the world at 2,200 hardware endpoints, and over 1,200 physical sites.

In the past year, the Network’s emergency applications have grown to include a number of test phase projects, including: a mental health crisis application to extend the expertise of mental health professionals to hospitals who need it, a child and adolescent mental health program, and virtual critical care and trauma support programs for smaller hospitals.

Numbers from last year loudly attest to the benefits of video in healthcare: in 2010, OTN was able to help doctors and other healthcare professionals avoid more than 100 million kilometres of travel in province—making it lean and green. Meanwhile, more than 134,000 patient consultations and 11,000 educational events involving close to 400,000 learners took place over video. Add to that 12,000 administrative meetings and the power of video starts to become even clearer.

And all of this is still the tip of the iceberg, Brown says, as new avenues and applications continue to open up and adoption of e-Health and video increases.

“I think we’ve really just started, just look at the development of consumer devices over the past year. Everybody is catching on to video, there’s a groundswell of understanding,” Brown says. “I believe the virtual healthcare system, which is beginning, will soon be every bit as real and ubiquitous as the flesh-and-blood system.”

By IT World Canada Staff