Healthcare that (almost) makes house calls

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A cancer diagnosis can be traumatic for not only the patient but also family members and caregivers. Feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness, anger or a sense of a loss of control are common and it is important to have someone to talk to.

The psychosocial counsellors in the Cancer Centre’s Supportive Care Program at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre provide confidential counselling to cancer patients and their families.
“Cancer impacts the whole family,” says Susie Hamilton, MSW, RSW, one of the counsellors in Supportive Care. “In counselling we see as many family members as we see cancer patients.”

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A Social Worker and Counsellor, Hamilton counsels individuals and families, focusing on issues like anxiety, depression, loss, grief and bereavement. Supportive Care staff strive to provide the best possible patient care, so when one of Hamilton’s regional patients asked if she could look into a way to have a counseling session without her leaving home, Hamilton did not hesitate.

“I had been meeting with the patient in Thunder Bay, when she travelled up for medical appointments, as well as meeting through scheduled telemedicine visits,” she says. “The patient would go to an Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) site in her home community.”

At the patient’s request, Hamilton began to investigate the possibility of having their appointments via OTN, between Hamilton’s Cancer Centre office and the patient’s home. Through a piloted trial, the patient was able to use her laptop with Internet connection and a webcam.

“The counselling session for her would take place in the comfort of her own home,” says Hamilton. “She was able to connect through various devices, such as an iPad, iPod and even her Smartphone. I also provided counselling to her two children in the mornings or after school. It was convenient for them. The patient loves the convenience, as she doesn’t need to leave home or drive anywhere, as there were some difficulties with mobility.”

Not only does tele-counselling offer greater flexibility for the patient and her family, it’s also easier to set up appointments. Hamilton does not need to book a telemedicine suite to conduct her counselling session, as she has the ability to use the OTN services through her desktop computer.

Another benefit is privacy. People in the community don’t see the patient and family attending an appointment, something that can be an issue, especially in small communities.

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“Our patients are dealing with a number of issues: emotional distress, high anxiety, feeling down or depressed, life stressors brought on by a diagnosis or treatment, and survivorship,” says Hamilton. “Emotional well-being is important in recovery. Being emotionally well helps with the journey of cancer.”

Providing face-to-face counselling support can be challenging, given the fact that many patients live in isolated communities spread throughout Northwestern Ontario.
“We definitely needed to think outside the box in order to provide the best possible patient care to all of our patients,” says Hamilton. “This is definitely a step in the right direction.”