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Virtual Care in the North

Patricia and Hugh Cummins’ decision to move to Thunder Bay from Pickle Lake, Ontario, in 2001, even though their home community was “one of the healthiest places a person can live, with fresh air, outdoor activity and a loving sense of community,” was based in part on a lack of accessible health care.  

Now a youthful senior, Patricia has received great comfort in Thunder Bay from virtual appointments with specialists in Toronto. “Living in Pickle Lake required us to drive seven hours on the highway for medical consults and I cannot imagine how this would be possible for seniors with chronic conditions.”  

Dr. Norman Smith, an emergency physician, sees the value of virtual care firsthand in his work in Inuvik, the Northwest Territories, where he is responsible for seven small communities.

“Geography and a lack of medical resources often require patients to take long and costly trips for treatment that can dislocate them from their communities. It is especially sad watching a patient’s quality of life being impacted by having to travel for treatment and appointments in the final stages of their life. Anything that can be done virtually to allow patients to stay near home would have a really positive impact.”

According to Dr. Smith, a significant part of the virtual care provided in Inuvik is through telehealth. “Telehealth can facilitate a patient’s virtual pre-op visit with a specialist to provide consent for simple procedures such as a colonoscopy. It can also provide a mechanism for patients to receive follow-up care after returning from surgery in centres such as Edmonton and Yellowknife.”

Although Dr. Smith can list many more reasons why telehealth is essential to his work, such as being able to examine a rash or laceration without having to rely on a verbal description, he, like Patricia, would like to see even more advances in virtual care. “Telehealth is a wonderful tool but does require a patient to come to a health centre. I would love to see support for a secure app, like one I have heard to be in development, which would allow patients and physicians to communicate by cellphone.”

Dr. Smith also agrees that systems like telehealth could be useful in urban centres to help care for seniors, especially if the systems are usable from home, saving trips to the office or the emergency department. “The time has come for the Canadian health care system to create different ways for patients and physicians to interact and with the proper government support and remuneration for health care providers, the possibilities are very exciting.”