Telehealth project gets high marks from pilot participants

A recently completed e-health project suggests advancing telecommunications technology could help governments alleviate the growing stress on Canada’s health-care system.

Results of the project, a partnership between Ottawa’s March Networks Corp., Aliant Telecom, Internet-development organization

Canarie Inc. and Toronto-based We Care Home Health Services Inc., show remote telehealth can maximize health care resources without sacrificing patient care.

The exact findings of Dr. Richard Scott, the University of Calgary physician monitoring the pilot, will be released in the coming weeks. But John Schram, CEO of We Care, offered a sneak peak. He said 75 per cent to 95 per cent of the patients who participated in the pilot found it highly satisfactory, and that 100 per cent said the telehealth solution could replace some home visits. Eighty-five per cent to 90 per cent of nurses rated the project highly satisfactory. And Scott also found that the telehealth visits took an average of 11 minutes, compared to a 43-minute average for in-person visits.

“”There’s going to be an awful big savings if we go back to that 11 minutes to 43 minutes,”” said Schram, whose private company competes for government dollars to provide home care services.

The project, designed to monitor patient vital signs, involved March’s Home Telehealth Solution, Aliant’s high-speed broadband connections providing interactive video, audio and data transmission, and We Care nurses who were more used to giving in-person home care. Forty-four patients in the Halifax area were given one-in person visit and two telehealth visits each week for six months beginning last August. Patients were equipped with an electronic stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff, and an oxygen saturation probe — all wireless devices — as well as a video camera and gateway box that hooked into a patient’s television set.

The nurses had their own cameras, headsets and computers to take in vital-sign data.

“”I’m sure that initially the felt that they would miss the human contact, but I think as they got used to the remote visits, they found those 10 to 15 minutes good company,”” said Heather Grant, a We Care registered nurse who participated in the pilot. “”I was surprised. Generally the majority of clients were quite happy with the remote visits.””

One Halifax local from that majority is Glenn MacLean, whose telehealth visits involved monitoring of his blood pressure and weight. MacLean, in his mid-50s, had recently been diagnosed with “”near diabetic numbers.”” For MacLean, the time savings associated with telehealth, allowed him to maintain his regular work schedule.

“”It used less time for me than going down to the hospital to get your tests done,”” he said.

When asked whether he would continue as a telehealth patient if he had the choice, he said, “”It would certainly be worthy of consideration just from the efficiency standpoint. And I don’t think the care aspect suffered any.””

Grant said MacLean represented the healthier end of the telehealth patients, and that most had respiratory or heart conditions or were confined to wheelchairs. Still she stressed that in some conditions, such as those involving the changing of dressings, a nurse could never be replaced by telehealth technology.

Schram acknowledged there are technical questions as well. The pilot was conducted in an urban area as broadband access was a precondition for participation. However, he said We Care is looking at telehealth through dial-up modems for an upcoming pilot, tentatively slated for Calgary. He also said the medical equipment needed will soon become affordable for governments.

Schram said he wants government involvement in the next telehealth pilot, echoing a plea made by the Ontario Hospital Association last July. Though it makes up the smaller sector of health care expenditure, it is the fastest growing sector in Canada and less expensive than traditional care, according to Schram.

He said the pilot proved that telehealth can save money and improve accuracy, as data automatically transmitted from the remote equipment to a nurse’s computer.

“”As for the nurses charting on pieces of paper, this is quite a leap forward,”” he said.

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