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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

HEALTH CONNECTION

Virtual healing can have real results

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun


Cancer patients can feel so alone, like they're navigating through dangerous, uncharted territory. And while health workers are there to support them physically, it's difficult to really understand what a patient is experiencing if you haven't gone through it yourself.
"The goal is not to replace humans - it's to supplement humans when we cannot do what we want to do face to face," says Dr. Alex Jadad, director of the Global Centre of eHealth Innovation.


Nancy Viva Davis Halifax knows this better than most. She was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago and had a mastectomy. During her illness she became aware that there was no real language for sufferers to share, describe and understand their pain.

"It became clear to me that what was often absent was the patient's voice. As a cancer patient you often feel estranged from your physical body. Through telling our stories this becomes a more normal experience," she says.

As a medical researcher today, Halifax is devoted to documenting other cancer patients' stories, and by August 2004, they will appear in the form of plays, journal entries and photographs accessible to all on the Internet.

This is just one of many projects being developed by the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation. A joint initiative of the University Health Network and the University of Toronto, the centre's mandate is to use information technology to enhance health care.

This can be done in many ways, says director Dr. Alex Jadad. He says 70% of patients in Canada have access to the Internet, and soon people will be able to book appointments, access health records, renew prescriptions or research ailments online.
How technology can transform health care:
"We're trying to accelerate the transformation of the health system into a good companion for people. What we have now could be regarded as an inefficient franchise of repair shops. "I think everybody is interested in having a health system that responds to the needs of people regardless of who and where they are. Until recently we didn't have effective ways of doing that. "Now, with the Internet and new communication technologies, that goal that everyone would like to achieve may be closer than ever." Dr. Alex Jadad, director, Centre for Global eHealth Innovation (www.uhnres.utoronto.ca/ehealth)


But he stresses the importance of using information and communication technologies to enhance the emotional and psychological side of patient care -- a strange idea considering that many might consider technology a poor replacement for human beings.

"The telephone is part of eHealth and we can develop a relationship over the phone," Jadad counters. "The goal is not to replace humans -- it's to supplement humans when we cannot do what we want to do face to face."

Halifax hopes her project will give those suffering from colon cancer that type of support. But she also sees it as a resource for health workers who really want to understand how their patients are feeling.

The Centre for Global eHealth Innovation also aspires to be a resource for all of Canada's 200 ethnic communities, catering the content so that it's accessible for people with different cultural attitudes towards healthcare and general health.

"If we are to meet the needs of Canadians, we have to think globally. At the same time we can learn from working with the Chinese or Indian or any other communities, and this information may be of value to their countries of origin," Jadad says.

He also sees a day when the centre links Canadian patients with resources and Web sites that have been developed abroad. For him, that furthers his goal of guaranteeing patients -- regardless of their location --access to the knowledge, services and support they need.

(Aprille Janes (afj@ajanesinc.com) is a freelance writer based in Port Perry, Ont.)



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