It was spring of 2002 when both Dauphin and Swan River health care leaders, which included local physicians, were first introduced to MBTelehealth– a state-of-the-art camera system that would enable consultation and connection with specialists in Winnipeg, reducing the need for patients to travel or be transported for care and enhancing access to specialized services. Similar demonstrations took place in other Westman communities like Brandon, Killarney and Russell.
The service became operational in Dauphin and Swan River in March 2002, two of 24 sites province-wide equipped initially to conduct X-ray consults with Winnipeg specialists. Since then capabilities of MBTelehealth have expanded, allowing for more virtual consult opportunities in more specialized areas, including mental health, stroke, neurology and rehabilitation services.
Today – 20 years later – there are 204 MBTelehealth sites across the province that are part of the integrated system, including 26 communities within Prairie Mountain Health and 67 in First Nations and Inuit communities and, relatively recently, schools in Winnipeg’s Frontier School Division.
Since MBTelehealth was established in the Parkland communities, Dauphin and Swan River have been consistent top users, saving residents and patients of the region thousands of kilometres of unnecessary travel for care.
Dr. Mark Forsyth, a general surgeon at Dauphin Regional Health Centre, grew up in western Manitoba and understands the challenges that rural residents face when it comes to accessing specialized care. That’s why he primarily uses MBTelehealth for patient consults.
“Many of our patients aren’t able to drive or have poor vision so travelling, even to Dauphin, from other areas, isn’t physically possible,” said Dr. Forsyth. “We have a large percentage of patients with diabetic foot problems, so they are connected to Winnipeg specialists in Infectious Disease and foot specialists that can see the wounds on their feet without driving a great distance to get them assessed. If they have foot issues, they are likely to have driving issues, so it’s certainly more patient-friendly.”
For colleague Dr. Milos Vuksanovic, a general surgeon working in Prairie Mountain Health and the former Parkland regions for over 10 years, he believes MBTelehealth provides the right platform for appointments not requiring physical examination.
“For endoscopy patients, they don’t need to drive all the way here for a quick 15-minute appointment,” said Vuksanovic. “That’s why MBTelehealth is invaluable. It saves patients time, travel and expenses.”
While the use of digital tools accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, patients have been experiencing the benefits of MBTelehealth for the past two decades.
James Price, a client who has used the service for virtual visits with a Winnipeg internal medicine physician, sees the benefits – especially as gas prices continue to increase.
“It certainly beats the lengthy commute to Winnipeg during unpredictable weather and road conditions, not to mention the gas savings and extended time away from my work and everyday life for an in-person medical appointment. It’s just efficient and effective!” stated James Price.
Neurosurgery is another area that has greatly benefitted by the ability to connect local physicians or patients to Winnipeg specialists via MBTelehealth.
Dr. Joseph Silvaggio is a Neurosurgery specialist who has been practicing in Manitoba for the past 19 years. He says within his practice, MBTelehealth helps facilitate first-time consultations and some follow-up visits with patients who live in rural and northern parts of the province.
"In such a large geographic province with a relatively low population density, specialized medical and surgical services are required to be centralized, and this is certainly the case with Neurosurgery," Silvaggio stated.
"MBTelehealth has facilitated specialized and subspecialty Neurosurgical care for the last 20 years. Without this important service, leading-edge care would be much more challenging to deliver and, frankly, unavailable in certain situations. In essence, MBTelehealth has made it so a patient in Churchill has the same access to Neurosurgical consultation as a patient in Winnipeg."
Ensuring better access to care for northern and Indigenous communities has been an important priority when expanding MBTelehealth services across the province.
Dr. Leah Koetting, a Swan River physician who has been practicing since 2016, is able to connect patients in the Swan River Valley area, including several Indigenous and northern communities and two First Nation communities in Camperville and Sapotaweyak with enhanced care opportunities.
"Some communities we serve are relatively isolated and when individuals have complex conditions that require timely access to care, MBTelehealth is another tool in the toolbox that we can use to improve health disparities and eliminate barriers for patients and families, regardless of where they live and work," Koetting stated.
Across Manitoba, there were 22,930 MBTelehealth sessions in 2020/21, including over 21,242 clinical virtual appointments. Over the past five years, more than 144,500 MBTelehealth sessions have been held, saving an estimated 89 million kilometres of travel and amounting to roughly $37 million savings in travel.
March marked the 20th anniversary of MBTelehealth services in the Dauphin and Swan River health facilities.
"This is a significant milestone for MBTelehealth as an important digital tool that enables better access to health-care services for communities across Manitoba," said Doug Snell, Interim Provincial Lead, Digital Health and Chief Information Officer. "This service allows patients to stay in their home communities to connect with health-care providers in a more efficient and convenient way. We are grateful to the dedicated and engaged clients and care providers across the health system and the team within Digital Health for their commitment to innovative digital health solutions for Manitobans."
A number of digital health tools have been implemented as part of our health system response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital health is – and will continue to be – a key component of Manitoba’s commitment to improving health services for all the populations we serve.