New hotline helps northern B.C. patient care

Medical specialists in larger centres are now a mere phone call away for Vanderhoof’s patients and doctors.

Dr. Dan Horvat

Dr. Dan Horvat

Medical specialists in larger centres are now a mere phone call away, rather than hours of driving or weeks of waiting, for Vanderhoof’s patients and doctors.

This season, the Health and Wellness Innovator of the Year Award in Prince George was presented to Dr. Haidar Hadi and Dr. Dan Horvat for their Northern RACE Line project.

With RACE standing for Rapid Access to Consultative Expertise, the northern B.C. project provides family doctors with a direct phone line, through an automated system, to specialists for quick advice on their patients.

“Northern B.C. is large and travelling is sometimes difficult,” said Horvat, an assistant professor for the Northern Medical Program at the University of Northern British Columbia. “It just makes it easier for family doctors to get advice they need in relatively real-time.

“It improves patient care and decreases the need for travel by patients.”

Developed as part of the Doctors of BC and the provincial government’s Northern Partners in Care initiative, the RACE Line can also help with doctor recruitment and retention in rural parts of the province, Horvat explained.

“Family physicians in smaller communities can feel isolated and it’s not always easy to get the support they need,” he said. “If they’ve got questions and concerns, it’s easier for them to have somebody to turn to.”

Accessed through a 1-800 hotline where doctors can speak directly or leave a message, the project involved specialists based in Prince George, whenever possible, Horvat explained.

“Our intent is to build on the services we have in the north,” he said. “Because if it turns out that somebody needs to be seen, it’s better that they’re speaking to somebody in the north already.”

Specialists in the region are also more in touch with issues that residents of northern B.C. face, he added.

“People in the north know what we do and don’t have in the north, and they understand the travel issues and what it’s like to practise in smaller communities,” Horvat said. “Plus, we want to build the relationships between the GPs and the specialists…another thing that supports the rural GPs (general physicians).

If they know the specialists a bit better, they can contact them.”

Since the project’s inception three years ago, the number of specialties accessible through the RACE Line increased from 1 to 13, with calls growing from eight to 37 per month.

In Vanderhoof, Dr. Nicole Ebert from the Omineca Medical Clinic used the RACE Line and found it useful.

“It gives us quick access to somebody who we can ask,” Ebert said. “Often, we don’t need to send the patient into Prince George.

“We just need to add a couple of questions to ask what our next steps would be, or whether they do need to be seen.”

The phone line saves travel and waiting time, as well as stress, for patients, she said.

“You can have a quick answer to your question, and not have to be worrying or to wait a month before [the patients] are seen and getting a letter back,” Ebert explained. “It really speeds up the process of patient care.”

For example, a doctor may be looking for advice, in terms of further tests or medications, regarding a patient admitted for heart failure.

Reaching a cardiologist through the phone line, the local physician may receive suggestions on medication dosage, and book an appointment for the patient with the specialist in a few months.

“As opposed to them going in for that, and going back in again [for the appointment,]” Ebert explained.

However, the phone line may be limited by the region’s lack of certain specialties.

“There are a few services we don’t have in Prince George that we’d love to be able to call somebody about,” she said. “So we’ll have to call Vancouver, but they don’t always know our circumstances.”

Communicating patient information through the phone may also be a difficulty that can be eventually overcome by technology.

“Talking on the phone is sometimes challenging because you’re trying to relay a lot of information over the telephone,” Ebert said. “Trying to use the electronic record system — making information transfer easier than trying to tell it on the telephone — is something I know they’re looking at.”