The effort to move Canadian medical records from paper to computer has been slow, and after eight years, the country is just a third of the way to its goal of having 50 per cent of those records available electronically by the end of 2010.
Canada Health Infoway, the non-profit organization charged with accelerating access to electronic records, released its annual report Monday. It shows that $1.576-billion was spent between 2001 and March of this year to bring Canadian health records into the computer age.
But, during that same period, just 17 per cent of Canadians obtained health records that could be accessed electronically. That's far below the goal of 50 per cent that has been set for next year.
Initially, Infoway had aimed to reach 50 per cent this year. But a federal review undertaken in 2006 stated that that goal was problematic.
"It is a very blunt target for a complex undertaking," said the review, which was released under the Access to Information Act. "The definition of this target is broadly misunderstood, the target itself is likely to be missed, and is not a strong indicator of success."
Health professionals believe that making the records available electronically will reduce errors, track patient care, and ultimately save lives.
A similar project, Ontario's eHealth initiative, is mired in a spending scandal replete with lucrative contracts awarded without competitive tenders and nickel-and-dime spending on snacks by consultants.
Dan Strasbourg, Infoway's director of communications, said it's too early to assume the new target will not be met.
"The provinces and territories are making solid progress and are currently on track to meet their objective of having the core components of the electronic health record in place for 50 per cent of Canadians by the end of 2010," Mr. Strasbourg said yesterday.
The federal government allocated $500-million to Infoway in its budget last January.
Although it has taken eight years to get just 17 per cent of Canadians' medical records computerized, he said it is possible to reach 50 per cent next year because much time has been spent in advance developing the electronic systems.
"Over the past six or seven years, the provinces and territories have been developing those systems," said Mr. Strasbourg. "In a lot of cases, over the next 18 months, the systems are going to be put in place for the clinicians to be able to use them."
But Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal health critic, said she was disappointed with the progress. Ms. Bennett said she remembered Richard Alvarez, the president and CEO of Infoway, coming before the country's health ministers in 2005. "We wanted him to do three things: accelerate, accelerate, accelerate," she said. "This 17 per cent [achievement by March] I just can't tell you how disappointing it is."
Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the NDP health critic, said she has no idea why the move to electronic records has been so slow. "Obviously we are way off target," she said. "I think the problem is lack of leadership from the federal government. There is no co-ordinating body pushing the envelope."