MUSKOKA – Muskoka’s direct line to health-care specialists just got a boost.
The province announced on July 19 that it is investing $850,000 in telemedicine annually in the North Simcoe Muskoka Local Health Integration Network.
The funding will support 10 new telemedicine nurses in the health-care region. Telemedicine nurses, states the LHIN, use technology for virtual patient consultations, assessments, training and knowledge exchange.
Using telemedicine, health-care professionals are able to deliver clinical care using live, two-way videoconferencing systems and related diagnostic equipment. Patients and health-care providers are able to speak to each other, and medical information can be instantaneously transmitted, stated the LHIN.
“Given that we are in a LHIN with a broad geography and a lot of rural areas, we think it is really important to invest in health services that can be close to home,” said Jill Tettmann, chief operating officer for the LHIN. “Although we can’t have everything that we want in our backyard, it’s really important that we have access to specialists in our LHIN so residents don’t have to travel to get care.”
Tettmann said North Simcoe Muskoka does not have the critical mass of patients that would draw a large number of health-care specialists to the region. Telemedicine services provided through the Ontario Telemedicine Network are a way to bring them here.
“It’s great for (specialists) to provide their services from their locations, whether it’s Toronto, London, Ottawa, or wherever the consultants are,” she said.
The North Simcoe Muskoka LHIN serves about 454,000 residents, who are mainly in rural communities. Telemedicine increases access to specialists and medical consultants while decreasing travel time and expense, according to the province.
Psychiatry and mental health accounted for 55 per cent of telemedicine consultations in the region last year, internal medicine accounted for 15 per cent, pediatrics for 11 per cent, oncology for eight per cent, and surgery for three per cent.
Tettmann said the telemedicine funding will be distributed between hospitals, family health teams, community mental health programs, nurse practitioner-led clinics and community health centres in this LHIN.
Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare will receive funding for one telemedicine nurse while Muskoka Parry Sound Community Mental Health Services will receive funding for another.
Cindy Childerhose, an Ontario Telemedicine Network co-ordinator for Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare, said telemedicine services were needed in the community.
“The LHIN is good at recognizing the essential service that this is really becoming,” said Childerhose. “It allows patients to access specialties that we don’t have in our community.”
Telemedicine services have been available at the Huntsville hospital since 2003 and at South Muskoka Memorial Hospital since 2006. Both are managed by Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare.
The room at the Huntsville hospital that houses the telemedicine equipment is relatively small. It contains two monitors, a pair of high-definition cameras, computers, and other equipment. It also has chairs on which patients, their family members and their physician can sit while the telemedicine nurse facilities a virtual consultation with a specialist in another town or city.
Childerhose said the video system is secure and ensures confidentiality.
The list of specialists that can be accessed through the system is extensive and includes those who specialize in addiction and mental health, diabetes, trauma, stroke, dermatology, oncology, geriatrics, internal medicine and pain movement.
The cameras are sophisticated enough to capture minute details related to an injury, wound or skin condition, and images can be sent to specialists for assessment.
“We also have a telesteth, which is a digital stethoscope. Physicians can listen on the other end (virtually) and hear the lung sounds as well as the heart rate of the patient,” said Childerhose. “We often use this for cardiac patients or transplant patients.”
The equipment can be moved around the hospital, too. Moreover, she said the equipment can be used for medical student courses and staff training.
At least 1,200 patients use the telemedicine services in Muskoka each year.
Childerhose said patients can get a telemedicine consult by requesting one through their family doctor, their specialist or by calling the Ontario Telemedicine Network co-ordinator at their hospital.
But she said not everything is suitable for telemedicine, including initial consults and manual procedures.
Regardless, she said telemedicine is the future of health care.