Northwest Health Alliance boosts IT capabilities

Nelson Sidorski, project management office lead, Northwest Health Alliance: recent upgrades to NW LHIN regional hospitals have helped standardize systems and improve connectivity.

Nelson Sidorski, project management office lead, Northwest Health Alliance: recent upgrades to NW LHIN regional hospitals have helped standardize systems and improve connectivity.

Small hospitals benefit from improved infrastructure

The Northwest Health Alliance (NWHA) recently completed a major upgrade to IT systems at regional hospitals that will improve the reliability of their networks, help standardize IT systems across the region, and ultimately improve their connectivity to other health-care services in the region and across Ontario.

Provincial initiatives such as eHealth Ontario’s ConnectingOntario will help improve patient care in a number of ways including faster transfer of health records and reduced duplication of tests.
However, this type of sophisticated, province-wide network requires minimum IT standards at each hospital.

“You need a certain level of basic infrastructure to do that,” said Nelson Sidorski, NWHA’s project management office lead. “We were finding that many of the sites were lacking,” The NWHA conducted a full inventory and assessment of IT infrastructure at the 13 hospitals throughout the North West Local Health Integration Network (NW LHIN) two and a half years ago. “The goal was to figure out where (hospitals) are at, and what they need to get to a certain baseline of proficiency.”

The next step was to help hospitals reach that level of proficiency with funding provided through the Small, Rural and Northern Hospital Transformation Fund. It was also an opportunity to put in place some IT best practices such as redundant systems, better backup measures, and even basic upgrades, including cabling, more reliable wireless networks, and more network capacity.

“Generally, as equipment gets older, it’s a lot more prone to failing,” Sidorski said. Upgrades also help improve IT capabilities. “To have new software coming out, new technology, you need to have infrastructure that supports that.”

It was also an opportunity to standardize IT systems.

“While we’re doing these upgrades, we’re also upgrading their local area networks so that they’re all following a standardized design,” Sidorski said. “The idea there is that they can share equipment if needed… and to have a group of regional experts on one system rather than a number of individual experts scattered throughout the region.”

Funding also allowed the NWHA to reconfigure the router system at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre to provide more redundancy, so that if one router fails, the network remains fully operational.

All of these IT upgrades and additions would be difficult to complete without the help of the NWHA, especially in the case of the smaller hospitals.

“In the (eastern part of the North West LHIN), many of those hospitals don’t even have an IT person,” said Sidorski. “They have a partial resource who is doing other things, and some of them had to contract a third-party resource. So, they’re very limited in terms of capacity.”

That’s a big part of the reason the NWHA was formed in the first place: to pool resources and centrally manage shared IT systems at the 13 hospitals throughout the North West LHIN. These hospitals range in size from 18-bed facilities in Manitouwadge and Red Lake to 375+ acute care beds at Thunder Bay Regional. The NWHA was launched initially as a way to pool information systems such as Meditech patient records software and the PACS imaging system to improve patient care and share costs. It has since moved into other areas of IT, including networking, and is helping the LHIN meet its ConnectingOntario ehealth requirements. It’s also expanding from its initial membership of hospitals.

“We’re not really technically limited to the hospitals. Our mandate as a shared service office is expanding, and we are looking to get more into the community sector and support them,” Sidorski said. NWHA has helped other health service providers, including the Atikokan Family Health Team and the North West CCAC.

However, the main focus remains on member hospitals with region-wide projects. Last year, the NWHA released its Hospital eHealth Strategic Plan 2016 which identified four main priorities, including IT standardization, improved eHealth infrastructure, realignment of IT service structures, and the use of advanced technology to improve patient outcomes. Developed with the help of its eHealth advisory committee comprised of representatives from all member hospitals, the plan is a blueprint “to advance the state of technology in northwestern Ontario hospitals to help enable safe, high quality, and cost-effective patient care.”

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