Telehealth industry offers doctors a cure for travel costs

OTTAWA — Though Industry Canada’s much-touted broadband initiative was scaled back in Monday’s federal budget, one federal health agency says it shouldn’t hinder telehealth services operating in remote areas of the country.

But such services might come with a bigger price tag to Canada’s private sector — not to mention the rural villages and towns not yet hooked up to high-speed Internet. Industry Canada is now looking to both companies and small municipal governments to pay off the cost of high-speed Internet access in the wake of the 2001 budget.

Still, Patricia Dwyer, associate director of programs at Newfoundland’s Telehealth and Educational Technology Resource Agency (TETRA), told the Broadband Canada conference in Ottawa Wednesday that videoconferencing technology allowing doctors to examine and treat patients over large distances is cost-efficient in the long run.

“A lot of money is spent trying to get physicians out to various sites for traveling clinics and those types of things, so this is an option that could actually save money,” said Dwyer. “Even though we were hoping that the (federal government’s) broadband initiative would move forward, I don’t think a lack of funding impedes what we’re doing.”

She refers to Industry Canada’s 1997 goal to link up every Canadian to high-speed Internet access by 2004. That project was bumped back a year as of Monday, and the estimated $1 billion earmarked in government funding was downgraded to $600 million.

Despite the setback, she pointed out her agency has already racked up considerable success on its own by setting up 150 teleconferencing sites offering high-quality video access in hospitals and clinics across Newfoundland and Labrador. These are linked via satellite to Memorial University in St. John’s, where physicians there can perform tele-EEG, tele-radiology and tele-ultrasound to patients in hard-to-access communities.

The cost of using the system is $100 to $150 an hour, depending on how much bandwidth is being employed. Dwyer said this is considerably less expensive than having to fly a doctor to a remote location or a patient to an urban hospital.

Her agency helped a man who had cut his leg with a chainsaw in a remote community, but was unable to be transferred to hospital during a violent snowstorm. A nurse was able to e-mail high-resolution pictures of the wound to a doctor, and effectively sutured the wound per the doctor’s instructions.

Dwyer felt that the impact of such success was already being felt, which is helping to cement the young marriage between medicine and new communications technology.

“We’re seeing more and more the use of the prefix ‘tele’ in front of other words,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Michael Binder — an assistant deputy minister for Industry Canada — suggested that rural governments would have to work with private industry to fund future broadband projects, ultimately impacting telehealth. He encouraged representatives from the private sector at the conference to pressure small-town governments into starting broadband projects.

“Until you mobilize mayors and reeves across this country to demand this type of infrastructure, they won’t have it,” said Binder. “The ideal model (for broadband) in my mind is a private sector who, together with a community, builds a network that’s sustainable. I’m now a fan of such things, of those networks.”

Broadband Canada continues until Thursday.

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