First-of-its-Kind Virtual Osteoporosis Initiative Benefits Patients

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People living with osteoporosis – or its precursor, osteopenia – now have extra support, thanks to a first-of its-kind initiative recently introduced by Newmarket-based Southlake Regional Health Centre.

The new initiative helps alleviate stress among those with osteoporosis – especially people in remote towns – by providing virtual bi-monthly, two-way communication access to top rheumatologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, kinesiologists, pharmacists and dietitians at the hospital.

“Osteoporosis is a disease that is associated with all kinds of misconceptions, in good part due to the reams of media reports and study findings available to the public, some of which are conflicting,” said Dr. Carter Thorne, a leading Rheumatologist at Southlake. “The result is that once diagnosed with osteoporosis, people often don’t know where to turn and may not have local specialists they can consult for direction.”

With the incidence of osteoporosis on the rise in Canada, Southlake’s goal is to help those living with the disease access trusted information to speed up treatment. The virtual osteoporosis education initiative works under the premise that, contrary to common belief, osteoporosis is largely a preventable and treatable disease. It is aimed at eradicating misconceptions and arming those affected with what they need to know and do to improve their conditions.

The initiative was officially introduced this summer in cooperation with the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN). Every two months, the hospital connects via OTN to remote class participants in up to four Ontario sites at a time. The classes are pre-scheduled for participants, who are recommended by their community healthcare providers and are connected into the classroom from local facilities equipped with the latest conference technology.

In addition to learning how to overcome the common misconceptions of osteoporosis, participants gain valuable insight into the latest developments in treatment, ways to manage the disease and how to live comfortably. Session topics include balancing medications, incorporating calcium and vitamin D into one’s diet, staying healthy with regular exercise, measuring height and weight and what changes could mean, and safety and falls prevention.

Retired school teacher Darlene Sheehey, a 69-year-old resident of Fenelon Falls, experienced first-hand the benefits of the initiative. While osteoporosis had left her with eight injuries over the years, including two broken hips, a broken wrist, and a fractured spine, she didn’t realize how important it is to strengthen her bones by making lifestyle changes.

In September, she participated in Southlake’s virtual program from a local medical centre in Fenelon Falls. It was then that she came to appreciate how important exercise and a proper diet are in managing osteoporosis. Among many other things, she also learned which foods are calcium-rich and that taking a vitamin D supplement helps calcium absorption.

“Everything I learned from the osteoporosis class has been very helpful to me,” said Sheehey. “I hope to see an improvement in my condition by incorporating into my daily routine the exercises demonstrated to us and getting my dose of calcium through the right foods instead of medication.

The remote therapeutic education program builds on Southlake’s already-successful osteoporosis program, managed through The Arthritis Program (TAP) at the hospital, which consistently demonstrates well above-average patient outcomes.

TAP at Southlake is among the first in Canada to introduce an integrated osteoporosis program that brings together an interprofessional team of rheumatologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, kinesiologists, pharmacists and dietitians, who work closely with patients and their family physicians.  The program provides patients with comprehensive treatment under one roof, including regular clinics, educational workshops and exercise programs.

The objective of the virtual osteoporosis education initiative is to continue to extend the reach of the program across the province, especially in regions where access to specialized healthcare is limited. This model can eventually be replicated throughout the country, with the ultimate goal of providing participants with close to home access into the virtual classroom.