Partnership Brings High Bandwidth to Northern Ontario Communities
Closing the health services gaps in rural Canadian communities requires partnerships between federal provincial, municipal, ingenious healthcare and technology leaders.
This was certainly the case in Kenora, Ontario. In 2017, Indigenous, municipal and healthcare leaders met in ceremony to sign a resolution to work collectively toward the development of a patient-centered healthcare system. The collaborative group, now known as the All Nations Health Partners was formed out of the Kenora Area Health Care Working group to address a critical shortage of doctors and interprovincial issues.
In 2019, the ANHP became one of the first out of today’s 54 Ontario Health Teams (OHT). ANHP is also the first team from the North, the smallest, and the only team comprised of all Indigenous and community partners. Together, the partners prioritized modernizing digital infrastructure for the purpose of delivering health services to surrounding First Nations communities that the OHT serves.
Through a partnership with a local IT company, FSET Inc., the initiative gained access to Starlink Satellites to establish broadband internet access in these communities. An expedited federal application with the government’s Universal Broadband Fund allowed for 90 percent of the cost of Starlink satellites for residential homes across First Nation’s communities in Northwestern Ontario to be covered.
The next priority for the OHT included extending high-speed Internet access to community health centres in covered regions. With support from Ontario Health, the OHT secured Starlink kits for each health centre and security appliances to secure the kits with ongoing operating support from an ANHP OHT partner, Ogimaawabiitong (Kenora Chiefs Advisory).
As of June 2022, all community-based health centres within the All Nations Health Partners were connected and secured.
The call included having any primary care provider traveling to a community to be able to access the Electronic Medical Record Telus, PSS. The project successfully delivered on providers being able to use the EMR in communities where this just wasn’t possible previously.
As new digital infrastructure solutions are expired to Bridge, digital and healthcare. Equity caps initiatives must provide the security of both hardware systems and the data on software systems. Much like the provincial legislature controls healthcare services, the governments also prescribe information system security controls to help protect electronic health records.
In Ontario, the Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA) outlines some of the necessary information to protect the information systems, enabling digital healthcare. Yet, there’s no universal standardized protocol for mitigating and reducing security risks to acceptable levels. We acknowledge that provincial work is occurring in this area but remains slow to be implemented.
Cyber attacks on healthcare directly home, patient care, and the risk increases as the breadth of digital health care services expands. Comprehensive IT security risk frameworks must accompany the technology placed in rural communities. Choosing a framework that uses a security control catalog tailored to the Canadian context while assessing overall pros and cons, the scope of security control profiles, in the business-related security controls is essential.
Then, the security of healthcare activities should be categorized, and threat related security control should be identified. The healthcare sector may require many security control profiles, so the ones with the most significant exposure to cyber threats should be prioritized.
On the patient-facing side, this may look like mechanisms, such as two-factor authentication for accessing digital healthcare information and cyber security training for stuff. Internally, whichever risk management framework you use will require regular training assessments.
The way ahead:
There is no question that Canada’s digital and healthcare divides are interrelated issues, especially for those living in rural and remote communities. Federal initiatives, such as Universal Broadband Fund and provincial programming, such as Ontario Health, have been crucial for supporting localized groups working to bridge digital health care equity gaps.
With the expansion of broadband access, security issues related to healthcare data will continue to rise to the forefront. The path forward requires a commitment from private corporations, regional and provincial healthcare funders, Indigenous leaders, and health system stakeholders to hold each other accountable for prioritizing the efficiency of patient care as more broadband infrastructure projects continue across the nation.
This article by Nicole Brown was featured as a spotlight piece in the Canadian Healthcare Technology magazine.