Travelling for medical appointments is part of life for many North Islanders, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Time, expense, lost income, discomfort, distance from family and support network, accommodatons and for some, feelings of insecurity related to being alone in a distant community all erect barriers to better recovery and better health.
Telehealth, from the B.C. Ministry of Health, could reduce the height of those barriers, Margarita Loyola told the Mount Waddington Health Network. Telehealth holds the promise of removing many of the problems associated with travel but the service, which has been available for four years, is severely underutilized.
Loyola said the system is most often used to allow a patient access to a distant specialist, however, the public may not be aware that the system can also be used to facilitate family visits from distant family members, doctor-doctor and doctor-nurse consultations, discharge planning where a hospital patient can meet with professionals in the home community, ophthalmological screening and even cardiology patient monitoring for people who are in their homes.
In the two years 2008-2009 Medical Service Plan data shows 41 per cent of North Island residents who received medical treatment were either required to travel to, or were seen by a specialist who travelled to the patient. That percentage is second only to the Gulf Islands at 45 per cent and nearly 20 times that communities closer to urban centres such as Saanich and Sooke.
More than half the above visits were to Campbell River and Comox (58 per cent) and the top four reasons were cardiology, plastic surgery, dermatology and urology. A further 21 per cent of medical visits were to the south end of the Island.
Loyola points out that Telehealth is barely scratching the surface of what could be done.
“Island wide there were over 176,000 trips taken by people seeking medical consults in the past year period (Apr. 1 to Mar. 31). This is without Telehealth – just people travelling to see a specialist. Telehealth in this year has done over 2,000 teleconsultations thus bearly touching the surface as to how many people continue to travel – that is compared to the 176,000,” said Loyola in an email to the Gazette.
So why isn’t Telehealth being better utilized?
Loyola said there are a number of reasons, including reluctance by patients and physicians, a perception of decreased quality of care, space, support at the local site and scheduling and logistics. She encourages patients to ask their doctor about the possibility of using Telehealth rather than travelling.
And aside from saving time and money, using Telehealth also helps the planet.
“Telehealth – since its inception has done 4,816 Teleconsultations (from March 2007 to March 2011). All of these teleconsultations include the whole Island,” said Loyola. “The number of kilometres avoided throughout the whole Island through Telehealth, 1,626,312 and 447 tons of greenhouse gases have been avoided,” said Loyola.