Technology Eliminates Barriers to Care

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In an area as vast as northern B.C., where population densities are low, delivering healthcare is a monumental challenge.

But thanks to advances in diagnostic equipment technology, widespread digital transmission of test results and reliable electronic communicTechnology eliminates barriers to careations links, the huge distances that separate rural patients from large-scale medical centres are no longer barriers to good health.

"Technology is the big equalizer for remote and geographically-sparse communities," said Ken Winnig, Northern Health's director of diagnostic services. "Technology is delivering care through point-of-care devices. Often we can put the test in your community, where traditionally we'd have to go to a big lab to get it done well."

Northern Health's system of processing imaging results and lab tests grew by leaps and bounds in 2006 when it introduced the Pictures Archiving and Communications Systems (PACS) technology. The digitized system stores X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, and ultrasound tests on that are available to medical staff, nurses and physicians anywhere they have access to a computer. X-rays are no longer developed using film technology and the process has been sped up considerably.

"Students today are not even getting trained in film processing," said Winnig. "Technology on the imaging side means quicker and better access. If you need a radiologist or a specialist to review your image outside of your community, we can send it."

In 2012, Northern Health brought computer radiography technology to its smaller sites like Stewart and Dease Lake, which allows doctors to send out patient test results and share their findings with their colleagues at other facilities.

Digital analysis technology enables medical staff to rapidly process the D-dimer test for a coagulation protein, which indicates the presence of a blood clot. If the test comes up negative, chances are high the patent has no thrombosis and won't need medical treatment. Similar technology is used to process the fetal fibronectin enzyme test, which accurately predicts the likelihood of a premature birth.

Almost every one of the nearly 300,000 imaging tests Northern Health conducts every year are digitally processed. Even small communities in the Northern Health region have cardiac readers that measure troponin levels, which can be an indication of several different heart disorders.

"I'd say we're 98 per cent digital right now," said Winnig. "The only thing that's not digital is our mammography screening."

Northern Health operates mammography screening clinics in Kitimat, Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers, Quesnel and Dawson Creek. The Prince George clinic is operated by Phoenix Medical Imaging at the privately-owned Phoenix Medical Centre. To outfit one clinic with a full-field digital mammography machine would cost about $850,000

Another challenge is finding trained staff to operate diagnostic equipment and conduct the estimated six million lab tests Northern Health performs each year. The College of New Caledonia has taken on that task by developing its health science programs in medical lab technology (a 2 1/2-year program limited to 24 students per year) and radiology technology (two years, maximum of 16 students), producing dozens of graduates who are virtually guaranteed jobs

One critical need going unfulfilled is homegrown development of ultrasound technologists. BCIT in Vancouver is the only school in the province that offers that program and it graduates only 30 students each year. As a consequence of that staff shortage, the wait list continues to grow for ultrasound tests to measure blood flow and determine blockages, aneurysms, and heart conditions

"We have a number of vacancies for ultrasound techs and that's where we're really feeling it right now," said Winnig. "If I had a wish list, I wish that the college here would be able to launch an ultrasound tech program. The CNC programs have been a lifesaver. Rather than having to scour the globe looking for technologists, we can recruit locally."

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