Telemedicine benefits oncology treatment

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A northern Ontario breast cancer patient is now confident about her treatment plan thanks to telemedicine capabilities at Kingston General Hospital (KGH).

A meeting between the Moose Factory, Ontario woman and medical oncologist Dr. Yolanda Madarnas took place recently via videoconference after several in-person followup appointments between the two were cancelled because of bad weather and other extraneous circumstances.

A course of treatment for the patient had already been determined at the initial visit in the summer when she caught a charter flight out of Moose Factory and travelled to Kingston, but a number of issues still needed to be discussed before treatment could begin, explains Dr. Madarnas.

“We were finally able to have the discussion that we needed to have,” she says of the 40-minute videoconference. “I think there was relief in knowing that travel to Kingston wasn’t necessary.” Instead of meeting face to face, the patient and a Moose Factory nurse sat in front of a videoconferencing unit to ask Dr. Madarnas questions about her pending treatment. It was satisfying, Dr. Madarnas says, to be able to review all the outstanding issues thoroughly without forcing the patient out of her home town and away from her family.

Telemedicine, or telehealth meetings are slowly becoming more commonplace at KGH as users learn of its capabilities and convenience. Available through the Ontario Telemedicine Network, videoconferencing allows health-care professionals to connect with their colleagues throughout the region, makes distance education easier and provides clinicians with a means for followup appointments with patients who live in remote areas.

Serving the entire region of southeastern Ontario is challenging, especially when some patients are travelling several hours to come to the clinic.

Patients who live in Moose Factory depend on a charter flight service to get them in and out of the region. Flights are infrequent and often get cancelled due to inclement weather, even during the summer months. Because flights are not daily, patients from Moose Factory may have to remain in Kingston for several days before or after the actual appointment date.

KGH Telehealth Consultant Trish Lundstrom says the use of videoconferencing is becoming more popular as clinicians learn of its benefits. “It’s developing slowly and surely,” says Lundstrom. “I know it is not a part of mainstream practice yet but I encourage people to explore it. The technology is here to make it happen.” The most significant benefit of videoconferencing is the savings of costs in time and travel expenses for both patients and clinicians, says Lundstrom.

“Sometimes it can promote more timely access to care for patients at KGH,” she says.

There were two patient/clinician consultations and a handful of educational teleconferences at KGH during the month of October. In November and December 2006, there were 40 instances where telehealth technology was used. Patient consultations and educational sessions accounted for half of the teleconferences while the other half involved meetings.

Dr. Anne Smith, vice-president of the Regional Cancer Program of Southeastern Ontario and Cancer Care Ontario, says telemedicine videoconferencing will continue as needed for patients who live several hours away and don’t need a physical examination for their next appointment. If it grows in popularity, the cancer centre may look at hosting telemedicine videoconference clinics one day a month from a permanent location, she adds.