Alberta supports huge teleradiology network

July 16, 2001

Few communities have benefited from teleradiology and teleultrasound more than towns in the northern reaches of the Canadian provinces. Patients in northern Alberta referred for diagnostic procedures such as x-ray or ultrasound once faced a trip of 10

Few communities have benefited from teleradiology and teleultrasound more than towns in the northern reaches of the Canadian provinces.

Patients in northern Alberta referred for diagnostic procedures such as x-ray or ultrasound once faced a trip of 10 hours or more each way to reach the nearest medical specialists in Edmonton. Now, patients in small, remote locales enjoy the delivery of teleradiology and telehealth services through a provincewide health information network called Alberta Wellnet, which connects most outlying villages to medical hubs in Edmonton and Calgary.

About 70 telehealth videoconferencing sites and 15 teleultrasound workstations are currently operational in areas controlled by 15 of Alberta's 17 regional health authorities, some of which cover enormous geographic areas. The remaining two health authority regions are Calgary and Edmonton themselves.

"One rural health authority occupies about 10% of the total area of Alberta but contains only about 1% of the population," said Trevor D. Cradduck, Ph.D., telehealth director for Alberta Wellnet.

Regional health authorities insist that Alberta Wellnet support live video as well as a store-and-forward function for teleultrasound procedures.

"The requirement is for the radiologist to supervise a senographer at a remote site, rather than tell the senographer later that he or she needs another view," Cradduck said. "This way the radiologist can actually see the pictures and instruct the senographer, all during the actual procedure."

Rural health authorities wish to see their patients treated in a manner similar to the way they would be treated had they traveled to the radiologist's office, he said.

Data security over the sprawling network is not an issue, according to Cradduck. The network uses dial-up ISDN land lines that are part of a secure government network called Alberta Government Packet Switched Network (AGNPac), an X.25 wide area network (a standard protocol for packet-switched data networks) spun throughout the entire province.

"AGNPac is closely controlled, and all connections are regarded as a secure government network," Cradduck said. "None of the data goes out on the Internet."

An additional 40 sites are in various stages of planning and implementation - making Alberta's teleradiology network one of the largest in the world. Plans to expand network capacity over the next couple of years include the installation of a "supernet," a high-bandwidth connection into 420 communities located throughout the province, enabling even more teleradiology.

"Any community that has a healthcare facility, a school, or a government building will be served by a broadband connection," Cradduck said.