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NORTH Network to receive $5.7 million

The Ontario government is investing $5.7 million in the NORTH Network and its telemedicine technology in 2004/2005, as a way of delivering healthcare services to more northern communities, Minister of Health and Long Term Care, George Smitherman (pictured at left), has announced.

“Telemedicine is proof of the power of technology in delivering quality healthcare over vast distances,” said Smitherman. “This investment in NORTH Network will enable thousands of northern Ontarians to receive care in their own communities, instead of having to travel away from their homes and families.”

The NORTH Network provides telemedicine services in northern and central Ontario and supports over 100 sites, including 65 hospitals, 11 nursing stations and three regional cancer centres. NORTH Network delivers a wide range of health services in areas such as psychiatry, dermatology, cardiology, neurology, burn management, paediatrics, and geriatrics.

Telemedicine uses video-conferencing telecommunications and digital technology, including electronic stethoscopes, to virtually connect patients to health professionals. There have been over 5,300 medical consultations through NORTH Network so far in 2004, compared to a total of 5,100 in 2003.

“It’s gratifying to know that telemedicine is acknowledged as part of the creative solution to the transformation of healthcare in Ontario,” said Dr. Ed Brown, Executive Director, NORTH Network. “NORTH Network is pleased to continue to work with our many partners towards the integration of this technology into mainstream healthcare delivery for Ontarians.”

Telemedicine reduces wait times for health services. Patients wait less than two weeks for telemedicine appointments through NORTH Network, compared to waiting five weeks for out-of-town consultations with specialists. “Telemedicine is attracting health professionals to practice in rural and under-serviced areas because it transports the clinical and educational expertise of teaching hospitals to even the most remote communities,” said Smitherman.

“This announcement is important news for people living in northern Ontario who experience barriers accessing healthcare, said Chief Charles Fox, Head of Chiefs of Ontario. “It’s one more step towards creating a healthcare system that responds to community needs, and is available to all.”

The Northern Ontario Remote Telecommunication Health (NORTH) Network is one of three large telemedicine networks in Ontario using technology to improve access to care.

The province is providing $8 million in funding for the three networks in 2004/05, including $5.7 million to NORTH Network.

NORTH Network currently links over 100 sites, mostly in the North, including 65 hospitals, 11 nursing stations and three regional cancer centres. The network will be expanded to 50 more sites in 2004/05. It is the largest telemedicine network in the province, linking remote northern communities to specialists and hospitals in Thunder Bay, Sudbury and in the southern Ontario.

Earlier this year, the NORTH Network celebrated its 10,000th telemedicine consultation and the total is now 14,700. NORTH Network has made possible 5,355 medical consultations so far this year, compared to a total of 5,164 in 2003.

Patients wait less than two weeks for a telemedicine appointment through NORTH Network, whereas they may have to wait five weeks or more for an out of town, face-to-face appointment with a medical professional.

In addition to reducing waiting times for northern patients, NORTH Network is also helping to reduce the costs associated with travel for medical services.

Over the last two years, the average cost for a telemedicine consultation was just under $11 compared to over $290 for each patient to travel out of town to see a specialist.

This made possible savings totalling$1.26 million to the Northern Health Travel Grant program between April 2001 and March 2003.

NORTH Network supports consultations in 70 medical specialties including
cardiology, burn management, dermatology, general surgery and internal medicine. Seventy-five percent of telemedicine service activity involves patient services with the remainder being used for consultations between health professionals and training purposes.

There have been over 1600 educational sessions, courses and conferences held over the Network facilities since October 2002.

There are two other telemedicine initiatives serving Ontarians: VideoCare and CareConnect. VideoCare provides services in southwestern Ontario at 45 hospital sites, two regional cancer care centres and three family medical centres.

For its part, CareConnect serves eastern Ontario with links to 36 hospitals. Via telemedicine, a health professional is “transported” to a patient at a distant healthcare facility using satellite video technology. Using this video link, and special medical instruments such as electronic stethoscopes or special cameras, the physician can assess patients as if they were in the same office.