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The St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto's west end, is photographed on Dec. 6, 2018.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Huda Idrees is founder and CEO of Dot Health

Ontario has long struggled to get innovative health-care solutions past the pilot stage, and as a result, we’ve historically sunk a lot of time and money into the fragmented care model we find ourselves in today. This is where the new “superagency” Ontario Health comes into play – for better or worse.

Announced at the end of February by the province’s Progressive Conservative government, the People’s Health Care Act loosely defines Ontario Health as an agency that will subsequently fund 30 to 50 Ontario Health Teams (OHTs). Many fear that without the appropriate incentives in place, we could end up in a worse situation than we started – with multiple OHTs making procurement decisions that result in yet another patchwork implementation of technology systems.

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And yet, as the founder and chief executive of a Toronto-based health tech startup, I’m optimistic, because with a robust digital strategy that defines pathways for government, health-care institutions and vendors to more easily work together, hyper-local startups have a renewed chance to compete and win business in niche and necessary areas of need, such as home care and children’s mental health. Canada’s provincial governments are the biggest buyer of health-care services in this country. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of health-system implementations in Ontario can be traced back to U.S. companies. For example, Telehealth Ontario phone lines are run by SYKES, a Florida-based customer-intelligence company. Ontario Health could – and should – leverage its spending power to invest in home-grown health technology companies and propel them to a global scale.

Shaun Mehta, a resident physician in emergency medicine at the University of Toronto, is eager to see the worlds of medicine and technology work together with purpose and direction. “Most people know that policy can drive innovation, and the government tries to enact innovation-friendly policies to encourage disruptive solutions. But it also works the other way around – innovation can really help shape policy and foster a bottom-up approach that addresses the fears and concerns of the people on the ground,” he told me after the announcement. “I’m hopeful that in this new model, more entrepreneurs get a seat at the table and help craft some of the decisions of what this will look like.”

Dr. Mehta has spent time advising and working with my own company, Dot Health. Dot Health helps Canadians access their own health records from hospitals, clinics, labs and family doctors – quickly, easily and cheaply – right from their mobile phones.

Some hospitals or health-care systems have spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating or procuring services from U.S. for-profit companies to prop up independent, hospital-specific patient health-record portals. The result? Portals that don’t talk to or access patient records from other hospital networks or levels of care, such as family physicians. Other systems are still relying on arcane processes that cost Ontarians anywhere from $30 to $300 for paper copies of their own health records. This leaves patients with dozens of logins to dozens of hospital systems and no cohesive way of managing their own care. The creation of an agency such as Ontario Health could help streamline these procurement decisions, allowing different levels of care to work together for the patient’s benefit, instead of propping up more silos of information.

“While the devil will be in the details of implementation, there is an incredible amount of opportunity built into this new way of doing health care,” says Brett Belchetz, CEO of Maple, a virtual care platform that connects Canadians with licensed physicians in minutes for advice, diagnoses and prescriptions from their phone or computer. “As a provider of virtual care services, we’ve repeatedly heard hospitals and clinics tell us our systems are vastly superior to what they are currently using.”

I also spoke with Dr. Belchetz after last week’s announcement, and he told me about a downtown Toronto cancer clinic where rural patients sometimes had to drive three hours for a five-minute check-in appointment. “With Maple’s virtual care platform, these patients would never have to make this gruelling journey for a checkup,” he says. The mere existence of Maple proves that the technology is functional and ready to implement now – the problem is that funding structures have prevented doctors from providing innovative services, such as virtual care, through non-government networks. “Moving forward, my hope is that OHTs will not face these kinds of obstacles to innovation,” Dr. Belchetz says.

There is a long-standing joke in the world of politics: “You can never win an election on health care, but you can always lose one.” In other words, change in health care is hard. It’s personal, emotionally charged, and any proposal that poses a potential threat to our way of living understandably triggers feelings of fear and mistrust.

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But as we wade through this polarizing discussion, one fact is unifying: The way health care in Ontario is set up today is unsustainable. Ontarians are waiting longer on all levels of care than ever before. We’re running out of hospital beds and cannot fund new ones fast enough to meet the growing demand. Removing inefficiency by restructuring how we deliver care and funding, while incorporating technology that helps patients get involved in their own care, is the only way to scale our system. Will The People’s Health Care Act and Ontario Health be the silver bullet Ontario’s health-care system so desperately needs? If Ontario can create the appropriate incentives for health-care providers, so they’re compensated for implementing and using innovative technology solutions to treat patients when and where they need it most, Ontario’s health-care system can pioneer the future of care delivery.

Find a visual breakdown of Ontario’s new health-care system at dothealth.ca/PeoplesCareAct

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