Virtual care news and views

Blog October 7, 2019

KO eHealth & OTN: 10 years and counting

“What we have done is built an enduring partnership long before any contract or agreement and I think that partnership is based on something much more fundamental than a contract or agreement. It’s based on our mutual respect, our trust, the honesty that we’ve had between us, the integrity and our shared vision.”

This is what I said just over a decade ago in Balmertown, Ontario, more than 500 kms northwest of Thunder Bay, when we celebrated the formal partnering between Keewaytinook Okimakanak eHealth Telemedicine Services (KOeTS) and OTN.

As we celebrate the 10 year anniversary of our formal partnership agreement and the long history of working together that preceded it, I want to focus on the real meaning of partnership and collaboration. These are words you hear often in health care, but we seldom talk about the underlying social contract they imply. And, these have always been the life’s blood of OTN.

Trust. Mutual respect. Shared passion. All and always in the service of people and communities who need, who are entitled to, the right health care at the right time, in the right place. Nowhere has this been more important than in our First Nations communities.

From the beginning, I was inspired by how much the people of K-OeTS cared about their communities and how skilled they were in engaging a community to be receptive to virtual care. They were a joy to work with; we learned a lot from our First Nations partners. And I’m proud to say that along the way, OTN was able to step up and ask the only important question: what do you need to make it happen?

Some of our shared successes are happy stories that demonstrate how a small idea can spread and grow. While virtual care (telemedicine) has been used for many years across the North in 26 facilities, there were still many communities that did not have virtual care studios. Now, for the first time, thanks to an innovative idea from an OTN staff member, we have implemented a new model of virtual care that allows a K-OeTS “navigator” to connect health care providers and patients directly through our Managed Service Model. With funding from the provincial government, we have supplied 40 communities that did not previously have virtual care access with a computer, screen and camera that can be used to connect patients and providers in a private space. This year, the third year of the program, a number of schools are also being outfitted with access.

Other shared successes have their roots in tragedy. In recent years, when some communities have faced extreme trauma as a result of youth suicides, OTN and K-OeTS arranged an emergency airlift of virtual care studio equipment so that extra mental health services could be delivered to those in immediate need.

We’re also invested in Virtual Emergency Services (VES) which was trialed in 2017 and now offers support for emergency services, through video-links with specialists to a dozen remote communities, with plans for further expansion. So far, there have been more than 120 emergency services provided virtually, enabling critical life-saving care to be delivered faster. The system, a partnership of 20 communities and organizations, is working for patients and their families and for the on-site clinicians (typically Indigenous Services Canada nurses) who welcome the support from the Regional Critical Care Network in Thunder Bay and ORNGE. If patients need to be airlifted, the receiving hospital is better equipped to deal with the emergency because of early, accurate information through the VES connection.

When I stood with our partners in Balmertown in 2009 for a photograph to commemorate the signing, we posed in front of K-OeTS’s telemedicine quilt. Pieced together with symbols representing participating communities, it told an important story: the co-operation and collaboration which built K-OeTS. These same principles have subsequently characterized our partnership as K-OeTS and OTN joined forces with other partners to bring better health care to the North.

About the author: Dr. Brown is a founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN), one of the largest and most active integrated telemedicine networks in the world.