Broadening access to specialized care: The growth of telemedicine connects patients to the caregivers

1161

By Chonglu Huang

For nearly 13 years, Providence Care has been the hub for in southeastern Ontario, connecting patients from distant communities to their psychiatrists or specialists via high definition cameras and video-conferencing technology – all in real time.  

In 2001 a pilot project between and Queen’s University brought mental health supports to rural communities in Ontario through telepsychiatry. The program has since expanded to encompass access to stroke rehabilitation, wound care consultation, pain management consultation, lower limb amputation rehabilitation and even access to infertility specialists for patients in all areas of the province. 

As the leading health provider in southeastern Ontario for complex continuing care, physical medicine and rehabilitation, specialized mental health, specialized geriatrics, palliative care and long-term care, Providence Care is uniquely positioned to offer access to medical specialties through the use of technology and telemedicine.  

Dr. Stephen Bagg, Clinical Director of the Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Programat Providence Care, is one of several physiatrists who provide consultations with patients through a Telestroke and Virtual Rehabilitation Clinic.

“I have been offering one hour a week stroke rehabilitation services via telemedicine to in-patients at Belleville General Hospital for the last two years,” said Dr. Bagg. “There’s no question that people recovering from stroke benefit from the expertise of a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Telemedicine allows us to provide that care.  Without this technology, these patients wouldn’t have access to a physiatrist.”

Dr. Bagg consults from his personal desktop videoconference unit, which is specifically designed for telemedicine care delivery.  Dr. Bagg added that there is definitely enough information delivered through video-conferencing to provide the right treatment.

“Physiatry is a specialized practice that is underserviced in many smaller, rural communities and so it really makes sense to use telemedicine to broaden patient access,” explained Dr. Bagg.  “In fact, many inpatients recovering from stroke cannot be easily transported to Kingston for an assessment in my clinic. I believe that they derive a significant benefit from seeing a doctor via virtual technology.”

Dr. Karen Smith, another clinical practitioner in the Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation program at Providence Care, has also seen the value of telemedicine. As the Associate Dean of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Office at Queen’s University, she encountered an opportunity to connect some of her wound care patients with Dr. Gary Sibbald, an internationally-respected dermatologist and wound care specialist based in Toronto.

“In 2011, Dr. Sibbald was the keynote speaker of an educational session organized by the Continuing Professional Development Office. During a workshop, we invited some patients who had complex wounds to consult with Dr. Sibbald, who had innovative ideas for treating on-going wound complications,” explained Dr. Smith. “As a result of those initial consultations, Dr. Sibbald graciously continues to follow up with those patients via telemedicine in the years that followed.”

Many of these patients had wounds that persisted for months, even years. With Dr. Sibbald’s guidance and expertise via telemedicine, many of these wounds have improved in condition or gone on to heal completely.

“We’ve come a long way in the last 13 years,” said Eddy Lloyd, a registered nurse who has been at the forefront of telemedicine practice at Providence Care since its inception. “From the start, we recognized a huge need for this type of service due to under-served communities in Ontario that desperately lacked specialized care that we can provide.”

Well over a hundred health care sites across the province receive specialized support from Providence Care. As of 2013, the Ministry of Health has deployed more than 3,000 videoconference systems across Ontario’s health care sector. Telemedicine has proven to be a powerful and highly beneficial tool that has truly enhanced accessibility to care, broadened the access to specialized care and shortened wait times for patients.

Chonglu Huang is a Communications Officer, Digital Media Specialist at Providence Care.