Canadian telehealth project connects to Middle East

JERUSALEM — Canadian health care providers and universities have forged a deal to discuss health issues via video teleconferencing with Middle Eastern counterparts that eventually may have a secondary benefit–building bridges in the often volatile Middle East.

With the help of $1 million in seed funding from Canadian benefactor Peter A. Silverman, the three-year agreement signed last October is meant to share medical knowledge and research through distance learning that involves parties in Canada, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

Telehealth rounds will be delivered in real time to physicians, residents and students on the diagnoses and treatments of neurological and psychiatric conditions affecting aging adults, such as Alzheimer’s, depression and Parkinson’s. Session participants will view the same patient cases and exchange ideas and expert opinion.

“It’s not like we’re doing telehealth consulting. We’re not serving a specific patient, but there may be lessons that apply to a specific patient,” said Dr. Arnold Noyek, director of the Peter A. Silverman Centre for International Health at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and chair of the Canada International Scientific Exchange Program (CISEPO).

The Canadian group, through CISEPO and the University of Toronto, has participated in telehealth projects for more than a decade. The most recent involved international medical rounds held with CISEPO’s Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian academic partners, as well as South Africa and the World Health Organization.

“This is the first time we’ve had a chunk of money so that we can ensure we’ve upgraded our facilities…and we have money for evaluation,” Noyek said. “But we’re trying to draw funds from other sources.”

Baycrest’s on-site telehealth facility, which is being improved and expanded as a result of the new partnership, will act as the main centre of program delivery.

Noyek said participants are kept to a minimum during a typical video teleconference to ensure interactivity during a session, which may consist of an introduction, presentation and Q&A. He said X-rays, microscopic slides, and video clips may also be shared.

He said telehealth rounds are also aimed at providing networking opportunities to health- care providers and academics, and giving them a chance to enhance medical skills and education that may in turn lead to professional advancement.

The greatest challenge has revolved around scheduling teleconferences keeping in mind the seven-hour time difference between Canada and this particular part of the Middle East, he explained. “You need knowledgeable, competent and effective telehealth coordinators, technical supports and bridging, which our CISEPO network of knowledge is fortunate to have.” 

For the Mideast partners, infrastructure compatibility was one of the biggest hurdles. Israel for the most part has different “cables and lines” than those found in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, said Dr. Yehudah Roth, CISEPO deputy director for Israel and chair of otolaryngology at the Edith Wolfson Medical Centre in Tel Aviv.

“The overall idea is to assist in capacity-building that will hopefully solve some of the humanitarian issues,” particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, Roth said. But the process is not likely to be smooth. “I anticipate our activities will encounter political problems rather than ease the political situation.”

The project has already experienced hitches on a non-technical level. Even under the auspices of the Canadian medical and academic communities, some academics in Jordan and the territories were not “enthusiastically cooperating with Israelis,” Roth said.

It has helped, however, to have a third party like Canada mediate because of its multicultural nature, he said. “Many times it helped to solve friction.”

Because funds have already been disbursed to the telehealth initiative, CISEPO anticipates no financial obstacles in light of the fact the militant group Hamas won January elections in the Palestinian territories. The surprise victory has prompted some western countries that view it as a terrorist organization to withhold aid from the new government.

The telehealth program will be rolled out to other countries, taking into consideration local culture, politics and language, if the Middle East project proves successful.

The Canadian parties include CISEPO, the University of Toronto, Mount Sinai Hospital, and Baycrest. The Middle East partners are comprised of the Edith Wolfson Medical Center at Tel Aviv University, the Jordan University of Science and Technology, and the West Bank’s Al Quds University.


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