There was a time when Nanaimo’s Samantha O’Neill-Edgar had to travel to Victoria to see her neurologist.
Now the multiple sclerosis patient has to go no further than her own backyard.
A satellite telehealth clinic for MS patients, considered the first of its kind in Canada, opened at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital today, May 1, to boost access to neurologists.
TeleMS launched four years ago in Parksville as a pilot program, allowing patients north of the Malahat to video-conference with their neurologist and access supports closer to home. It’s now a sustained, fully funded Island Health program that’s moving to NRGH to be closer to the emergency department, other health professionals and patients in Parksville, Nanaimo and Port Alberni.
Vancouver Island’s four MS neurologists are all in Victoria, but 750 patients live in the mid and north Island; most in Nanaimo, and travel can be difficult for them, said Amber Holden, MS nurse clinician and coordinator for the Nanaimo clinic.
MS is an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system. Travel can make symptoms worse for several days, keeping people from work or activities they enjoy with children, and an older population of patients accumulate disabilities with symptoms like spasticity and pain on a daily basis as well as fatigue, according to Holden, who said some patients from the north Island were driving 14 hours return trip.
There’s also treatment with the ability to control inflammation and reduce disabilities people acquire over their lifetime, but the new drugs require closer monitoring and increased education, she said, adding it was found the farther patients were from Victoria, the less likely they were to be on the drugs.
The four-year TeleMS project, created by neurologist Dr. Olinka Hrebicek and funded by Doctors of B.C., launched in 2014 and expanded a year later to the north Island where home and community care nurses do basic assessments with patients before video conferencing with Holden and a neurologist.
Now, the health authority is testing a mobile unit in the Nanaimo area to reach older home-bound patients and moving the satellite TeleMS clinic to NRGH.
“[Dr. Hrebicek] had listened to all of these reports of challenges of patient travel and some patients weren’t coming any longer and we just knew we needed to bend our comfort level in order to meet their needs,” said Holden, who adds it’s the first MS clinic in Canada to routinely use telehealth as a key component to provide care and increased access to specialist care. Normally all patients travel to the MS clinic centre no matter how far away they might live.
With TeleMS, patients are seen by a nurse who stays with them as they connect to a neurologist.
Holden said the equipment is on wheels so the specialists can use it to assess patients’ walking and gaits and a nurse is on hand to do any physical exams. Also, while the patient and Holden wait for the neurologist, the patient has her undivided attention and they can talk about MS, smoking cessation or anxiety and depression.
“We’re really able to meet their needs more holistically because we have more time and I’m in the room with them and I never change so they really start to open up,” she said.
MS patient O’Neill-Edgar, 36, said with fatigue, travel can is difficult and she also works and has a family so it was hard to fit in a whole day to go to Victoria. She was “over the moon” when she heard about TeleMS and called it amazing that the program is now funded and moving to Nanaimo.
“I don’t feel like I am missing anything by not going to Victoria and seeing the neurologist face-to-face because the nurse at telehealth is what connects all the dots for me,” she said, adding that Holden is warm, welcoming and comforting and can turn all the things the neurologist says into layman’s terms.
Ladysmith’s Danielle Southwell, 39, said when she was going through hard times, she’d text her nurse with questions. She was Southwell’s link to the neurologist, whom she’d have to wait months to see, and her questions were answered immediately.
“I felt like I wasn’t in the battle alone,” said Southwell, who believes the program is important to have.
“Just to have it be personalized I think is so important with something that hits people at such a young age and hits them hard. There is no cure,” said Southwell, who was diagnosed at 20. “There are a lot of different trials and things you have to go through and you have to be an incredibly strong person and in order to be a strong person I feel like you have to have a support system.
“That’s what this is.”