Telehealth conference to discuss challenges

While many of the problems associated with remote health-care delivery in Canada are technical, the organizer of a conference on the subject says one of the biggest issues facing modern telemedicine may simply be attitude.

The Canadian Society of Telehealth will host its ninth annual conference in Edmonton next week. More than 400 private, public and academic stakeholders from across the country are expected to attend to swap best practices, network, and share case studies and success stories.

John Schinbein, executive director for society, says he’d like to see telehealth perceived by more Canadians as a viable option for treatment.

“Technology is now evolving to the point where people don’t have to be physically present for care to be provided,” he said.

Using telehealth phone lines, patients can talk to a registered nurse who would be able to best direct their care – some of which could be accomplished in the comfort of their home. By using a phone service, they may be able to avoid a visit to the emergency room, said Schinbein, thereby helping to take the pressure off an already taxed health-care system.

“Patients can get the information they need to make a decision if they should be going to a hospital or not, or things they can try to be more self-sufficient,” he said.

The goal of most telehealth lines is to provide patients with self-directed care, said Laurie Poole, vice-president of operations for Clinidata Corp. “A lot of these programs are really focusing on self-management (and) empowering callers.”

Clinidata provides telehealth phone services to the governments of Ontario, the Northwest Territories, and Newfoundland and Labrador. It takes approximately 1.2 million calls a year and surpassed its six millionth overall call this summer.

Often people use telehealth services for reassurance, she said. “A lot of people will go to the Web to get medical information but sometimes they may want that information validated (by a live person).”

The perception of telehealth is changing, added Poole, as people view health care as part of a holistic process – one that can be followed using a combination of Web searches, phone consultations and in-person visits.

In some parts of Canada, telehealth is more of a necessity than an option. The Government of Nunavut has run a telehealth program since 1999 to provide much-needed medical services to residents who would otherwise have to board a plane to get to a doctor or hospital.

Tina McKinnon, portfolio manager and telehealth manager for Department of Health and Social Services said that since 1999, 700 flights have been avoided through the provision of telehealth. The territory is able to provide everything from mental health counseling to physical therapy via video-conferencing technology.

Nunavut still has technical challenges around service delivery – its Internet is purely satellite-based, for example – but other concerns can be more pressing, said Poole. For example, it may be necessary for Nunavut residents to consult with specialists in Alberta or Saskatchewan. The technical infrastructure is there to allow for that, but those doctors must be licensed to practice medicine in Nunavut before care can be provided.

Logistical and bureaucratic issues will be one of the talking points at the conference, added Schinbein. Doctors still face billing issues around telehealth, for example, but jurisdictions are now recognizing that a virtual visit may be just as viable as one that is conducted in an office.

The conference will held in the Shaw Convention Centre in Edmonton from Oct. 14 -17. Iris Evans, Alberta’s Health Minister, will open the conference with a speech called “Telehealth: e-solutions for our future.”

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