November 25, 2009

Stronger rural health network needed

As published in The Erin Advocate

Regional health planners are considering new efforts to improve the quality of rural health care for people in areas like Erin.

Recommendations from the current Rural Health Care Review were released at a public meeting at Centre 2000 last week, hosted by the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network (WWLHIN).

"Rural Canadians are not as healthy in two-thirds of categories," said Jim Whaley, who wrote the draft report. It recommends an array of improvements including fair distribution of community support services, based on need, especially for rural seniors.

The WWLHIN has a budget of $858 million, allocating funding to eight hospitals, plus nursing homes, mental health / addictions agencies, community health centres, home care, and community support services such as those offered by East Wellington Community Services (EWCS). It covers the 750,000 people living in Waterloo Region, Wellington County and South Grey County. Erin residents, including those in built-up village areas, are considered rural for this study.

"We are accountable to the public – it is taxpayers' money we are spending," said WWLHIN CEO Sandra Hanmer. Regarding the efficient coordination of services, she said: "Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong."

The study recommends a Rural Health Network, with representatives of the municipality, schools and heath / social service groups, to work on details of how to achieve the study goals, and improved coordination of services.

"Rural health care service delivery is unique due to a variety of factors including location, recruitment and retention of health care professionals, low patient volumes and an aging population," said Hanmer. A good network of services is considered important in attracting doctors to the area.

Compared to city-dwellers, residents of Erin and other rural areas of the WWLHIN have poorer access to health care and lower use of home care service. We have higher rates of premature death, some chronic diseases (like diabetes), hospitalization and long term care institutionalization.

Erin has the lowest population growth and one of the lowest percentages of seniors among the WWLHIN rural communities. No new homes are being built, and few small, affordable ones are available, so many seniors are moving away.

The WWLHIN funds the Seniors Day Program and the Volunteer Transportation Program operated by EWCS.

"We are looking for more services to help seniors age within their homes, with dignity and respect," said EWCS Executive Director Glenyis Betts.

Erin's Primary Care health care organization is the East Wellington Family Health Team (EWFHT), which is now building a clinic in Rockwood. It is expected to announce very soon the details of a new facility for on-staff family physicians and its many other health services, to be built next year in Erin. While EWFHT is not funded through the WWLHIN (it gets its funding  directly from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care), it operates within the regional planning framework.

EWFHT Executive Director Michelle Karker said the renewed focus on rural health is likely to create "opportunities" for better local service. From the new medical clinic in Erin village, they hope to offer satellite services in other centres such as Hillsburgh.

They are also developing a telemedicine service, a concept used extensively in Northern Ontario. Using an internet feed to transmit video and diagnostic information, local clinics are able to link patients with specialists in big-city hospitals. The technology also has the potential to monitor patients at home as they recover from illness or surgery.

The report also says hospitals should be obliged to have "specific provisions for serving rural communities" when it comes to access to specialists and regional centres for cancer and cardiovascular care. The report recommendations have not yet been approved by the WWLHIN board of directors.