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CBC Innovator of the Year

CBC Innovator of the Year

There was a time when Charlene Brophy wasn’t sure her job with Fonemed would last. Today, she and the groundbreaking telemedicine company she leads are delivering affordable and effective healthcare solutions to more than 10 million people around the world

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. After more than a decade as a registered nurse in hospitals in Ontario, then Newfoundland, then Ontario again, Charlene Brophy had finally returned home for what she hoped would be forever “because that’s what Newfoundlanders do.”

She’d taken a job with Fonemed, a telemedicine company in St. John’s, as a front-end shift-worker RN, providing health assessments over the phone instead of in person. Nursing was nursing, she figured. “Assessing a patient over the phone is the same as in person,” she explains, “but you use your ears instead of your eyes. You learn to recognize triggers through a person’s voice and speech patterns. You can hear airways obstruction, for example.”

With three young children at home, “controlling my own schedule,” working the phones instead of the hospital wards, seemed better suited to the lifestyle she was hoping to create for herself and her family.

Fonemed operated out of offices—and terminals—it shared with AT&T in the Fortis Building in downtown St. John’s. Brophy and six other nurses were available to answer calls from patients twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.

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There was just one problem. There were no calls. Fonemed had just one client, a physicians’ practice in southern Oregon. By the end of the first month, “I wondered, ‘what have I done?’” After two or three months, “I began to ask myself how long the shareholders would be OK with this? Would there be a pay cheque on payday?”

And then, “overnight,” doctors and health care centres and hospitals suddenly seemed to recognize the benefits of the services Fonemed was selling. “And that worry about having a job tomorrow went away.”

It did. And more. Within six months, Brophy was promoted to a teacher-leader. Within the year she was a clinical educator, and then a supervisor, and then head of clinical operations, and…

Today, Charlene Brophy is the president and CEO of Fonemed.

Fonemed itself is now a Newfoundland-based global company with American offices in Ventura, California and Miami, Florida, more than 200 employees and 2,300 client groups in Canada, the United States, Latin America and Asia. It provides health services to over 10 million people. In the past three years, the company has experienced 46 per cent revenue growth for 2016 revenues in the $10-20 million range.

In addition to supplying 8-1-1 telecare service for the government of Newfoundland, Fonemed provides its bedside-manner electronically to clients in Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia, not to forget over 60 university health clinics in the United States. The government of Saskatchewan is licensing its software; so are clients in countries from Bangladesh to Haiti, Greece, Peru and Venezuela. Fonemed not only provides those customers with its tweaked-for-the-client proprietary software but also training, quality assurance and ongoing support.

As for Charlene Brophy? Based on her corporate mantra of “what else can we do?,” she has now also added Atlantic Business Magazine’s CBC Innovator of the Year for 2017 to her list of laurels.

Not bad for a girl from Fermeuse.

Fermeuse, a coastal fishing community of about 300 people along the Irish Loop on the Avalon Peninsula in southwestern Newfoundland, an hour from St. John’s, is where Charlene grew up. Her father was the local fish plant manager, her mother the stay-at-home mom to a brood of two boys and four girls. “If you were a girl in those days,” Brophy remembers, “you had two career choices: be a teacher or be a nurse.” Since her mother, who’d grown up in an even smaller, more remote village, would sometimes muse “she would have loved the opportunity to become a nurse,” Charlene decided to do what her mother couldn’t. In 1987, she graduated from St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in St. John’s where she won prizes for both academic and clinical excellence and—signs of things to come—leadership.

Not only does Fonemed provide telecare to clients in Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia and 60+ clinics in the United States, but its software is also being used in Saskatchewan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Greece, Peru and Venezuela (submitted photos).

Not only does Fonemed provide telecare to clients in Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia and 60+ clinics in the United States, but its software is also being used in Saskatchewan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Greece, Peru and Venezuela (submitted photos).

After graduation, she and three of her girlfriends immediately hopped planes west to Scarborough, Ontario, where they’d been recruited by Centenary Hospital with promises of everything from excellent starting salaries to help finding housing. “At the time, I was eager to see what else there was,” she remembers. “It was exciting. I got to live in a big city, work in a large hospital. I’ve never had a nursing job I didn’t like.”

But she missed home. “I still love to visit Toronto, but for those of us from Newfoundland—or Atlantic Canada—we come from a different culture. We’re different. I like to say that, without hearing someone speak, I can identify them as Atlantic Canadian just by the way they carry themselves.”

So, after three years in Ontario, Brophy returned home to Newfoundland in the spring of 1990. While beginning her own family, she filled most of the next decade working as a staff nurse—providing pre-op and post-op surgical care, as well as burn unit nursing—in a traditional hospital setting at St. John’s Health Sciences Centre. In 1999, her then-husband, a contractor, landed a project in Ontario, so they relocated there for the year.
Soon after she returned to St. John’s in 2000, she joined Fonemed.

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