Northern ingenuity and creating an open dialogue with remote communities are keys to improve health outcomes for older adults in rural Northern Ontario, said the provincial lead for Ontario's seniors strategy.
Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, said small changes to medical services have proven to make big differences in how senior citizens are served in small communities.
In Deep River, for example, local paramedics, who had downtime for most of their days, used their time between calls to visit frail seniors and give them regular check ups.
The initiative cut 911 calls by half and also decreased hospitalizations in the community by 50 per cent.
“That's an example of some northern and rural ingenuity,” Sinha said at Sudbury's first forum on the health challenges seniors face in rural Northern Ontario, organized by the Rural Ontario Institute in collaboration with the Centre for Rural and Northern Health Research.
Sinha said open dialogue with patients has also proven to be an effective way to improve their level of care.
He described a recent trip he made, organized by the Northeast Local Health Integration Network, to visit remote communities along the James Bay coast.
“In one of the communities we went to, the elders said this was the first time in 35 years that anybody had actually spoken to them about their needs,” he said.
“Those elders were really frank with us about what they needed.”
During the trip, his group set up a program to train personal support workers in the remote communities. They expected five or six people to sign up, but received 25 submissions instead.
Dr. Wayne Warry, director of the Centre for Rural and Northern Health Research, said technology has helped bridge the two greatest obstacles in providing health care in remote communities – distance and culture.
The Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) is the largest in North America, and allows patients to connect with doctors thousands of kilometres away.
“You could potentially have a Francophone physician in Toronto speaking with a Francophone patient in Hearst,” Warry said.
But the OTN has only reached about four per cent of its potential patient-base so far, Warry said.
Telemedicine not only provides care to people who might not receive it otherwise, but also saves the health-care system money, by reducing or eliminating travel costs.
“By increasing the use of telemedicine, we could save millions, and perhaps even billions,” he said.
Norman Ragetlie, director of policy at the Rural Ontario Institute, said rural Ontarians have poorer health outcomes than people in urban areas.
But initiatives to connect people to health services, through technology or creative thinking, are helping to bridge that gap.
“We have to come up with different solutions for that challenge,” he said.