TORONTO – Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, in partnership with the Toronto Rehab Institute, ForaHealthyMe Inc. and the Centre for Family Medicine, has started a pilot project that enables patients with spinal cord injuries to use a new, virtual care system.
The new platform delivers tools and applications that enable communication between clients and their community support staff and physicians without travel. Instead, the computerized platform offers videoconferencing and the ability to share medical records and other documents.
These ‘virtual visits’ will reduce the need to make in-person appointments with a family doctor or specialist – which can often take weeks or months, and may also involve long and difficult trips.
“Accessing support is even more difficult, the more remote you are,” commented Dr. Stuart Howe, CEO of Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, which is partnering with Toronto Rehab – part of the University Health Network – on the project. Other partners include technology company ForaHealthyMe Inc., which is providing the technology platform, and the Centre for Family Medicine, a family health team with expertise in spinal injuries, based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.
The project, called the VIRTUAL Platform for Spinal Cord Injury (ViP-4-SCI), has been funded with a grant of $424,638 from the Office of the Chief Health Innovation Strategist. Speaking at an event launching the project, Bill Charnetski, the province’s chief health innovation strategist, noted that his office is investing $5 million a year in leading-edge projects for four years.
The project for patients with spinal cord injuries will start with a group of 50 patients, located across the province. They and their families will be able to contact experienced physicians, clinicians and providers of social services online when they have medical or everyday issues.
The project will evaluate how SCI clients use a virtual care solution to access support and healthcare services from home. If the results indicate that larger groups of clients can benefit, then more clients will have access to services and support through the platform.
Dr. Cathy Craven, a physiatrist and clinician scientist at Toronto Rehab and one of the leaders of the project, noted the network will act as a referral service, helping patients with spinal cord injuries set up the appropriate appointments.
For this and multiple other issues that may arise, it’s far better to contact a group of physicians who are experienced with spinal cord injuries and can provide accurate assessments and fast, appropriate referrals.
The family health team in Kitchener-Waterloo, led by Dr. James Milligan, will do this, to start.
Dr. Craven said the goal is to expand across Ontario, creating networks of patients and expert providers of medical and social services.
It is important to find the right care methods for spinal cord injury patients, as it is difficult to get them to medical appointments. The new network, using ViP-4-SCI, can not only speed up access to appropriate care, it can also answer questions that might otherwise have required a trip to a physician.
Such trips are time-consuming for patient and their families, and they’re often dangerous, too. Dr. Craven observed that wheel-chair-bound patients must be transferred to cars, and they can sometimes fall, breaking limbs, resulting in the need for more care – including nursing, physio, wound care and even management of depression.
There are huge benefits to the patient, in terms of health promotion, if such trips can be minimized.
As well, the overall cost to the patient can be greatly reduced.
How easy is such a system to use for a spinal cord injury patient, some of whom are paralyzed from the neck down?
“You’d be surprised,” commented Dr. Brian Chan, a post-doc fellow at UHN. “They have become very good at using new technologies.”
Dr. Matheus Wiest, also a post-doc fellow at UHN, explained:
“There are now things like eye-motion detectors, and interfaces that can be controlled by sticks held in their mouths. They get quite good at this.”
Of course, the families of patients can also assist.