Ontario Telemedicine Network lays off 15 percent of staff following provincial cuts

Ontario Gov

This week, the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) laid off 44 workers following a cut to the agency’s provincial funding. The 15 percent staff reduction comes amid revelations that the province is cutting more than $70 million for eHealth Ontario, a provider of digital health records, as well as nearly $52 million less for health policy and research.

“Some of the cuts might be necessary to divert funding to more efficient pathways of care delivery.”

The OTN is a non-profit agency that helps Ontario patients access healthcare through virtual care. The cutbacks come despite guarantees from Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet that no public sector workers would experience layoffs as a result of provincial government funding cuts. Health Minister Christine Elliott has not revealed the exact size of Ontario’s funding cut to OTN.

The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care told BetaKit it is investing its healthcare dollars to frontline care, and that the eHealth cuts are related to several agencies being moved under one agency – Ontario Health.

“Increasing the use of digital solutions is a key part of a digital‐first health strategy. This includes developing digital tools such as virtual visits, online access to health records and digital supports for integrated care,” a spokesperson from the ministry told BetaKit. “OTN remains committed to supporting that strategy by increasing access to specialized care, reducing pressure on hospitals and improving the patient experience by modernizing the way people can receive care, wherever they live across the province. We look forward to continuing to work with OTN as we work to modernize our public health care system.”

Established in 2006, OTN helps deliver virtual health care to Ontario residents. Its service uses video conferencing technology to link doctors and nurses with patients around the province. Rural hospitals and clinics use OTN’s network to access specialists from around the province. OTN’s latest annual report stated it administered almost 900,000 patient consultations, and saved nearly $72 million that would have been paid in health-related travel grants for northern Ontario residents.

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“When it comes to the modernization of healthcare, some of the cuts might be necessary to divert funding to more efficient pathways of care delivery,” Huda Idrees, founder and CEO of mobile platform Dot Health, told BetaKit. “When the province started funding [OTN], they were the only solution for virtual care in the province. That is no longer true.”

Idrees said companies like Avocare, Dialogue, and Maple (which Dot Health recently partnered with to a launch a joint virtual care solution) can now deliver the same service as the OTN, but at a lower cost, which could justify the cuts.

eHealth has created a secure electronic health record information system so medical information can be shared and accessed by healthcare providers. The agency says it processes 27 million requests for patient records per month, and has six billion records in its repositories. It claims 99 percent of hospitals in Ontario are connected to its services.

Idress stated that budget cuts were expected with eHealth being folded into the broader Ontario Health agency.

“Nobody knows… the amounts, of course, until they release them. eHealth has had a tough go of it,” she stated. “They’ve done incredibly important work in putting up provincial data repositories, but a combination of their placement within the Ministry, their mandate as a government service organization, and policies they operate under have prevented them from realizing the full potential of some of the assets they run.”

Jocelyn Bourgoin, CEO of Santé Manitouwadge Health, which uses telemedicine services to allow patients to consult with remote specialists, told CBC News that he does not anticipate the job losses will impact patient care.

“The government has made multiple commitments that we need to use technology and advance the access to services through technologies, and OTN is one of the premiere success stories,” he said. “I don’t think that anybody would place the progress we’ve made in jeopardy when the direction is to go further ahead and develop more patient access.”

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Writer, globetrotter, drone pilot & David Attenborough enthusiast