Instead of setting the alarm for 5 a.m., and fighting rush hour traffic to make it into the city for an early morning doctor’s appointment, struggling with the challenge of parking, and then battling traffic to return home, what if you could sit in a private office close to home, and talk with your doctor or specialist one-on-one, online?
What if there was a Registered Nurse on hand, to provide any assessments – pulse, blood pressure, weight – which may be needed by the physician and to explain any points needing clarification?
What if the whole procedure was confidential, simple and free?
Sounds futuristic, but it’s actually a concept that has been available for nearly a decade.
Welcome to the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN).
OTN provides “virtual” care for patients and virtual access and connections for health-care providers within the Ontario public health system – a step in providing equal access to quality care for Ontarians across the province, reducing both wait times and travel times.
“It’s such a good service. It’s practical, it’s convenient, it’s cost-saving, it’s time-saving,” said Kelly Steckroat, who is a Registered Nurse and Telemedicine Co-ordinator for the Innisfil OTN Site.
OTN, an “independent, not-for-profit organization,” sets up the sites where the computers and secure software needed for health teleconferencing are installed, through local partnerships and funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care.
In Simcoe County and Barrie, OTN works with a variety of agencies, including the Barrie Family Health Team, Royal Victoria Hospital, and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
In Innisfil, a site was established through the CMHA, in a temporary office at the Innisfil Town Hall, with support from the Local Health Integration Network because “they saw a need,” explained Steckroat.
Patients may still need to travel and meet with their physicians in their offices on occasion, but where telemedicine can be used, it can provide local access to health services and low-cost, low-stress alternatives for residents who may live significant distances from their health-care providers.
“It’s close to home – you don’t have to take the whole day off,” noted Steckroat.
Long-awaited appointments with physicians and specialists can be as short as 10 minutes; using OTN means that patients don't have to face extensive travel, the stress of parking, and occasionally overnight accommodation just for a short meeting.
The OTN connection is secure – “it’s an encrypted line” that doesn’t use WiFi, Steckroat said – and the Registered Nurse/OTN co-ordinator can stay to provide support or leave the room to keep the interview completely private.
Similar to Skyping, but provided through a secure network, "it's convenient for the clients," she added.
There are options to include not only patient and physician, but also other family members or health-care providers who might not be able to attend the appointment in person.
“It’s just the connecting,” said Steckroat. “There are so many different aspects to it.”
She noted that most of her work is “clinical,” connecting patients from Innisfil, including Cookstown, Lefroy and Belle Ewart, as well as Barrie and Bradford, with their physicians and specialists, accessing health care across Ontario.
At this point in time, OTN has about 10,000 physicians and health teams registered for telemedicine.
In 2017-2018, the Network set up over 896,000 patient consultations and connections across Ontario, saving hours in travel time, and millions of dollars in costs for patients and the health system.
So why is it the availability and the utility of telemedicine such a surprise to many people?
“I think it’s just that people don’t know,” said Steckroat.
OTN can also be used to provide telehomecare, including an at-home COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) program. There’s even a “telederm” program, now available at some sites.
Everyone has experienced a ‘mystery rash’ at some time; with a referral from the family physician to the OTN co-ordinator, a consultation can be arranged with dermatologists to assess the rash and recommend treatments.
“Hopefully (telederm) is coming to Innisfil soon,” Steckroat said.
She encourages the public to have a conversation with their family practitioner, nurse practitioner or other health-care providers, to learn more about OTN and how it can be used to access specialist care and other resources.
“We can make it work,” Steckroat said. “What we need is people to start asking about it - people to know it is available and to start asking.”
Steckroat added, “I love it. It’s so convenient… Even if people just have a question, just call me, and I’ll look into it with their permission.”
The Innisfil office of OTN is located in the Innisfil Town Hall at 2101 Innisfil Beach Rd., but will be moving later this year to a new office in the nearby Rizzardo Health & Wellness Centre.
For more information contact Kelly Steckroat at 705-436-3740 ext. 2244, or 705-817-3542, or via email: email@example.com.
For information on an OTN site at other locations, see https://otn.ca.