Ontario creates health teams to help patients access care across province

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

The Rainy River District now has its own Ontario Health Team (OHT), an initiative by the Ontario government to build connected healthcare systems centred around patients, families and caregivers.

These groups of healthcare providers and organizations are clinically and fiscally accountable for delivering a full and coordinated continuum of care to a defined geographic population.

The formation of the Rainy River District OHT took time, planning and many meetings with potential partners.

The journey of the The Rainy River District OHT began when Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Center and Fort Frances Tribal Area Health Services met with their respective Board of Directors and the 10 First Nation Chiefs in April and May 2019 to discuss OHT priorities.

A decision to submit an Indigenous-led OHT self-assessment for the southern region of Treaty #3 was made, but the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care assessed the application as being in discovery. 

When the application was not approved, Karen Lusignan, executive director at the Atikokan Family Health Team, began looking at different health teams. She said the population size would not have been the problem because Kenora was approved to be an OHT. 

This was because an emphasis on expanding partnerships and aligning with the readiness criteria outlined for the OHT’s was encouraged. Therefore, in October 2019, follow-up meetings were held with other local health and social service organizations and the local First Nation communities to discuss expanding the OHT self-assessment membership to the entire Rainy River District.

This prompted the resubmission of another self-assessment, which was a collaborative effort by all the partners by 10 First Nation leadership.

The second submission partners included Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre; Fort Frances Tribal Area Health Services; Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board; Riverside Health Care Facilities; Atikokan General Hospital; Canadian Mental Health Association Fort Frances Branch; Fort Frances Family Health Team; Atikokan Family Health Team; and Northwestern Health Unit.

The partners were meeting on a monthly basis and developed the terms of reference. On Oct. 23, 2020, they were advised that their application had been approved.

Currently, through the OHTs, patients receive all their care, including primary care, hospital services, mental health and addiction services, long-term care, and home and community care from one team. 

Shanna Weir executive director at the Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre, said the main goal is that there is collaboration amongst all these sectors so that the patient’s journey is more efficient and that they get services where and when they need it at the right place. It is one team that’s working together to provide them services instead of a siloed approach that seems to be the current state of health care in Ontario, she added. 

Lusignan said the team begins providing service to the patient rather than each individual organization.

“We’ll come up with a gap in health services. And then how do we all fit in to try to work together to improve that gap. So better continuity and better patient experience.”

The Rainy River District also has one year deliverables that the ministry wanted them to set for the year. 

These deliverables include performance measures, purpose and rationale and method of collection.

In terms of the performance measures, they were asked to identify three to five areas that they felt were areas that they could monitor as a group of healthcare professionals.

Weir said they looked at some of the things that they felt were priorities for the area. 

“Diabetes, mental health care and substance abuse care were the top three priority areas that we identified as service providers in our region, as areas that we felt we really needed to focus on,” Weir said.

She added that as they move forward in getting more patients and providers on board, these areas will be the focus of the subcommittees.

“Being able to share information and have patients have access to information and booking online,” Weir said. “Those are just some examples of things that we feel are really good and enablers that are going to help address some of the issues that we currently see in a siloed health system as opposed to an Ontario Health Team.”

Lusignan added that they developed a mental health and addiction patient pathway to determine where the gap in services are, which will help with formulation of the proposal for mental health and addiction. 

That being said, Lusignan and Weir emphasized that they are in the early phases to engage various partners and the public once they have their executive lead hired.  

The government announced the first cohort of 24 Ontario Health Teams in 2019. These teams will implement a new model of organizing and delivering health care that better connects patients and providers in their communities to improve patient outcomes, according to the provincial website.