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Jane Philpott, seen here on Sept. 19, 2019, called the data platform, with the goal of better detecting and responding to COVID-19, 'a really important initiative,' and said she is interested in further studying the socio-economic and racial impacts of the virus.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has appointed former federal cabinet minister Jane Philpott to lead its pandemic data effort, in a bid to better integrate the province’s fragmented health care system in the face of the COVID-19 fight.

Dr. Philpott, a family physician and former health minister in Justin Trudeau’s government, will serve as the province’s special adviser on its new Ontario Health Data Platform. She will also chair a roundtable of 15 health experts, lawyers and others to provide advice to Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy. Dr. Philpott’s two-year post is unpaid and the government hopes to launch the platform by July.

Dr. Philpott called the data platform, with the goal of better detecting and responding to COVID-19, “a really important initiative," and said she is interested in further studying the socio-economic and racial impacts of the virus.

“There are real challenges in health data. There are real challenges with a health care system that for as long as I’ve known it has had … silos,” she said in an interview.

“There are huge amounts of information that have to be brought together in order to understand the pandemic better."

Ms. Elliott called her the “obvious choice” for the role. Dr. Philpott, who also starts as dean of Queen’s University’s faculty of health sciences in July, has extensive experience in public health in Canada and abroad. During the pandemic, she worked at Participation House, a group home for adults with disabilities in Markham, north of Toronto, that experienced a severe COVID-19 outbreak. Dr. Philpott quit Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin affair, and was later removed from caucus. She lost her Markham area seat in the 2019 election.

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Ms. Elliott said the goal of the platform is to "break down the barriers,” and to better detect COVID-19, discover risk factors for vulnerable populations and predict when and where outbreaks might happen.

“These are all issues we hope that Dr. Philpott will tackle, to bring all of this information together," she said.

The new platform will provide access to data such as hospital discharge summaries, emergency-department visits and long-term care claims, to be used by researchers and health care systems to better inform public-policy decisions. The government says it is working in consultation with the provincial privacy commissioner.

Mr. Bethlenfalvy said he views the platform as a starting point for the province to prepare for a “potential second wave” of the virus in the fall.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Premier Doug Ford’s government to issue an emergency order to begin immediately collecting race-based data on health care in Ontario.

New data released last week by Toronto Public Health show that low-income neighbourhoods with higher proportions of racialized people and new immigrants are being hardest hit by COVID-19. The province has granted some health units permission to begin collecting the data voluntarily, and is looking at regulatory changes to make it mandatory provincewide.

Ontario has faced criticism for what experts call an “antiquated” health care system, one that has relied on fax machines to transmit test results and disparate data from 34 public-health units to track the spread of the coronavirus across the province.

Lauren Lapointe-Shaw, a doctor and scientist with the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute who has been working with COVID-19 patients, said Ontario is currently unable to track health care results in real time.

“We really don’t have any sort of organized process to support timely data collection on COVID-19 cases or their outcomes," she said.

“If you’re getting data late, then you’re always looking backwards.”

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital who is being named to the province’s data roundtable, said there needs to be a way to standardize the way data are collected.

“It’s extremely important. You want to really be able to accurately measure the impact of the policy that you set, and of course learn from it," he said.

"Data is crucial. Otherwise, we’re flying blind.”

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