Dr. Michelle Tuma during clinic surgery in Kimmirut. Photo courtesy of Vets Without BordersKira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

It’s not only humans who lack access to proper medical care in the North.

Pets are left without any means of access to examinations, diagnoses and treatment in most remote communities, which sometimes ends in heartbreak.

Vets Without Borders has been attempting to change that since 2019, when a pilot program was launched across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut to address animal needs.

“I led that,” says veterinarian Dr. Michelle Tuma, who comes from Yellowknife, “and in 2022 we [formally] operationalized.”

Long-term funding came from non-profit organization Veterinarians Without Borders. By 2023, the three community partners the program started off with had grown to 11.

After the success of the initial launch, Veterinarians Without Borders has partnered with PetSmart Charities of Canada and Animal HealthLink and initiated the one-year telehealth program.

“We’re so excited to be part of this program— the first ever of its kind dedicated to Northern Canada,” says Laura Eley, communications officer for Veterinarians Without Borders.

The initiative will serve remote communities across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut that lack access to veterinary care. Launching as a pilot program in three communities— Gjoa Haven, Tuktoyaktuk and Kugluktuk — it will provide pets and their guardians access to registered veterinary technologists who can provide veterinary information and advice and triage calls to veterinarians.

The main goal of the pilot program is to “offer temporary veterinary clinics to community partners,” said Tuma. “However, we are building access to sustainable veterinary care when vets are outside of communities.”

In general, the program is designed to “work alongside the communities to initially identify and address their priorities… a lot of our initiatives are community-led and we have community liaisons to support the program and bring awareness and support,” explains Tuma. “The telehealth program was developed as a way to bring access to veterinary care customized to the Northern landscape so that animal guardians can have some sort of vet care even when our temporary vets aren’t in the community.”

How it works

The program launched on March 7. Community members will be given a number for an around-the-clock hotline, where they will be put through to a registered veterinary technologist to relay any animal health concern or for any immediate need “to support and care” for their pet.

After the initial call, a vet affiliated with VWB will receive a follow-up report, and then proceed with any required additional care, such as medication prescription or dispensing advice.

Tuma noted that all the phone line operators have received Northern-specific training.

“We have customized algorithms and protocols for Northern scenarios,” she said. “We want to be able to give as much advice and support as possible to the animal owner during that call.”

For those living in the communities with the program, Tuma asks them to check their local community Facebook groups and keep eyes peeled around town for announcements.

“We’re hoping this is going to improve access to sustainable care,” she said. “With a lot of success, we can expand the framework of other organizations to improve [access to animal health care]… it takes a lot [of work] to create programming and sustain framework. We realize how important our community partners and relationships are…

“Due to the remote nature of Northern communities and the low number of veterinary professionals in the North, providing veterinary care can be extremely challenging,” said Tuma. “There are scenarios with animals in distress that with the proper instruction and human intervention can save the animal’s life. That’s our hope with this telehealth program – that it will help strengthen animal health capacity and give pet guardians and their animals the opportunity to swiftly and effectively treat injuries and illnesses.”

By Kira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 12, 2024 at 06:32

This item reprinted with permission from   The Narwhal   Victoria, British Columbia

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