Sector mourns death of telehealth leader
June 7, 2017
KELOWNA, BC – The telehealth community has lost one of its pioneers. Dr. Bill Nelems (pictured) was an enthusiastic advocate of telemedicine and over many years contributed to the improvement and expansion of the service so that patients would have better access to care. Sadly, Dr. Nelems passed away in Kelowna this past April at the age of 77.
Innovation and collaboration were embraced by Dr. Nelems in all aspects of his professional life. He was BC’s first thoracic surgeon and part of the Toronto team that performed Canada’s first lung transplant.
He was also the original medical administrative director of the BC Cancer Centre for the Southern Interior in Kelowna when it opened 1998, making him the first practicing surgeon to lead an administration of a regional cancer facility.
In 2002, thoracic surgery in BC was centralized in four key centres in the province. Kelowna, which had access to the radiation and oncology services that thoracic surgeons need, became one of these centres. But how would surgeons based in Kelowna provide services to patients who lived hours away? Along with his fellow thoracic surgeon colleagues, Dr. Nelems began work on a solution. And that solution was telemedicine.
The TeleThoracic Surgery program in Kelowna was launched in 2003 and is now one of the flagship telehealth programs offered by the Interior Health Authority. From Kelowna General Hospital, thoracic surgeons and a nurse practitioner use videoconferencing to see patients living in remote communities throughout the interior and northern BC. The program has saved patients and surgeons millions of kilometres in travel since its inception.
Dr. Nelem’s collaborative work with his surgical colleagues and with provincial telehealth managers resulted in not only the development of integrated clinical workflows for the videoconferencing-based service, but in the garnering of significant financial contributions from Health Canada, the Health Authorities and from major telecommunications partners.
The money was used to upgrade equipment and networks, and to expand the service to more communities around the province. Patients could now receive equitable access to care that previously was literally out of reach.
Always enthusiastic about the benefits of the service, Dr. Nelems never hesitated to talk about the difference that telemedicine made for his patients. In a video clip (https://www.infoway-inforoute.ca/en/home/174-what-we-do/digital-health-and-you/) recorded as part of a Canada Health Infoway initiative, Dr. Nelems answers questions about the benefits to patients and his experience with the technology.
In one of the segments, he describes a difficult conversation with a patient. Eloquently, he explains how he felt the ‘screen between them’ disappear.
The bridging of the distance between patient and provider was accomplished by Dr. Nelems through the depth of his care and concern for his patients, and through his determination and will to ensure that people received the highest possible level of care.
He has left a lasting legacy in the incredibly successful TeleThoracic Surgery program in BC, including the ongoing work of his colleagues who continue to provide and improve the service he helped to found well over a decade ago.
Dr. Nelems will be missed by family, friends, patients and colleagues; and by those in the telehealth community who were so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from such a great man who gave freely of his time and ideas.