The Northern Ontario Remote Telecommunications Health Network is planning a massive expansion of its telemedicine services to 61 member sites.

The NORTH Network, as it is called, will develop an IP-based network with the Ministry

of Health, sending signals across the Smart Systems for Health system. About 34 of the sites are up now. By end of month and middle of February officials plan to be testing connections and preparing for an official launch.

The NORTH Network launched in 1998 as a way of using IT to offer greater access to health-care services. The two-year trial period involved Sunnybrook Health Science Centre in Toronto,Timmins & District Hospital, Lady Minto Hospital in Cochrane and Kirkland & District Hospital.

The network gives users in remote areas a remote control touch pad that turns on equipment like TV monitors, adjusts the volume and picture, and operates the remote cameras. Doctors can diagnose patients through this approach, prescribe treatment and conduct post-operation checkups.

According to Dr. Ed Brown, director of the NORTH Network at Sunnybrook

and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre, the expansion will bring the service to more communities in central and Northwestern Ontario. These include links to Keewaytinook Okimakanak’s Kuh-ke-nah Network (K-Net), which connects First Nations groups. “”These are five communities that have no road access, except in the winter,”” said Brown.

OHIP doesn’t offer any fee structure for work done through the NORTH Network,. As a result, Brown said he has had to build fees into the budget offered by the Ministry of Health, which funds the project. Funding for the expansion includes $8.5 million through Health Canada and $2 million from Northern Development and Mines. Cisco Systems Canada Monday announced an additional $120,000 donation.

Brown said most of the money would go towards some of the sophisticated hardware involved in telehealth applications. These include workstations that combine videoconferencing platforms with a PC that are fitted in a medical cart so that it can be rolled around. NORTH Network doctors also use devices like handheld patient exam cameras, digital stethoscopes that transmit sigals over a distance and endoscopic light sources. Almost all the networking gear are Cisco products. Doctors sometimes connect an otoscope to examine the ear and a high-resolution patient examination camera. X-rays and other images can also be scanned and transmitted.

Brown said the NORTH Network conducted an evaluation following the pilot period and approximately 95 per cent of patients said they were satisfied with the service.

“”We begin with the health professionals in the community and get them to understand what this technology can do,”” he said. “”But I think as patients find out about it, they’re beginning to ask their health professionals.””

So far 50 hospitals are members of the network. Though most of the administration is handled out of Sunnybrook, the project employs full-time staff in Timmins, Thunder Bay and Sudbury.

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