Telehealth industry lobbies for national broadband access

The National Broadband Task Force has a prominent Canadian health figure on board to promote its agenda of having all Canadian communities linked to national broadband networks by 2004.

Dr. Robert Filler, director of telehealth at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and president of the Canadian Society of Telehealth, Thursday called for the federal government to recognize the importance of telehealth and extend high-speed Internet access to more Canadian communities.

Filler said he was recently contacted by Industry Canada, the driving force behind the task force, after writing them a letter several months ago. “I heard from people in Industry Canada that any support I could offer now would be of help,” he said. “People may say that’s lobbying, but I’m very happy they called me. I am a convert to the idea and the conclusions reached by the Broadband Task Force.”

The National Broadband Task Force released a report in the summer reccommending high-speed Internet access for all Canadians. The group is composed of 33 members from private sector firms like Lucent Technologies Canada Corp. and Shaw Communications as well as public interest and aboriginal groups.

Filler said he is unconcerned with the political ins and outs of drumming up the necessary federal support and funding to realize the task force’s 2004 goal, but knows first-hand the role broadband plays within his own hospital. The Hospital for Sick Children performs about 20 consultations a month to remote locations via two-way videoconferencing.

“I’m not a politician, I’m in the business of providing health care, so I have to be an advocate of things that are good for people’s health,” he said. “I don’t want to get into a battle with some guy who says . . . it costs $18 billion. I don’t care if it costs $108 billion truthfully.”

According to IDC Canada Ltd. Internet analyst Lawrence Surtees, extending broadband access to rural communities may save the government money in the long run. The current system of flying patients to the closest hospital that can meet their medical requirements is very costly, he said.

“Every time a patient has to be seen or referred for even a consultation, it involves one hell of a plane ride and thousands of dollars. All you have to do is look at a map,” said Surtees.

Just one consultation conducted by two-way video could save the government $10,000 or more, he said, so the government could recoup the cost of providing broadband easily.

Surtees suggested fixed wireless rather than laying fibre optic cable would be the better way of extending broadband to remote communities, then link to the nearest point on a fibre backbone. The National Broadband Task Force has found some “ammunition” by bringing Filler on side as a public advocate, he said.

Filler said he was originally invited to join the task force when it appointed its members in January, but declined due to other responsibilities. As an advocate he said, “I’m happy to wave the flag for this because I think it’s really important.”

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