Organizers of a new tele-homecare program in Thunder Bay plan to expand it to other parts of northwestern Ontario.

Two nurses at the Northwest Community Care Access Centre [CCAC] are starting to monitor patients with chronic heart or lung disease in their homes five days a week, and provide consultations via phone.

Patients use a computer tablet hooked up to a blood pressure monitor and a scale to transmit their readings to the nurses, and also type in other information on how they're feeling so nurses can identify any areas of concern.  

The nurses also provide longer "coaching sessions" at least once a week to maintain an ongoing personal relationship with patients and help them manage their health, said Marg Milani, manager of the new program.  

The service is currently accepting patients with heart failure or lung conditions like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease [COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema]. But the Northwest CCAC is planning to expand its tele-homecare program early in the new year to include patients with diabetes.

Laurie Poole

Laurie Poole of the Ontario Telemedicine Network says tele-homecare has been proven to reduce hospital visits. The service will be offered to patients with diabetes next year. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

In other parts of the province, tele-homecare for patients with chronic diseases has significantly reduced emergency department visits and hospitalizations, said Laurie Poole, a vice-president at the Ontario Telemedicine Network. 

"So that's very powerful when you look at the impact that can have on not only patients having a better quality of life, but reduction in health-system utilization,” she said.

In a tele-homecare pilot program in southern Ontario in 2007, ER visits were reduced by 73 per cent and hospital admissions were reduced by 65 per cent, officials report.

Funding for the new program in Thunder Bay — about $300,000 for this fiscal year — comes from the North West Local Health Integration Network and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. 

Milani said she expects that funding to increase next fiscal year, and believes that eventually, tele-homecare will be the norm for patients with all chronic diseases. 

"Right now the health-care system as it stands is not sustainable," she said. "We need to change how we're looking after ourselves and the impact that's having on the health-care system."  

Milani and Poole —both nurses by training — said tele-homecare makes sense financially and also provides better care by allowing patients to manage their illnesses at home. 

"If you look at ... the cost of the equipment and compare it to in-hospitalization cost or ER visits, it's significantly cheaper and we're keeping people in their communities,” Poole said.

Watch program manager Marg Milani demonstrate the typical morning routine for a tele-homecare patient below:

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