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The Globe and Mail

In health-care innovation, the future is already here

Ottawa Hospital chief information officer Dale Potter holds an image on an iPad in an ICU room. Physicians are increasingly using mobile devices to co-ordinate care and diagnose illnesses.

dave chan The Globe and Mail

I count myself among the millions of Canadians who cherish their universal health system and want to ensure that high quality health services are accessible and sustainable for generations to come. Nobody wants to be sick. But it's clear that if you are ill, you're much better off today than in the past. Canada's life expectancy of almost 81 years is now one of the best in the world. That's up from 71 years in the early 1960s. And Statistics Canada data show that, on average, older adults can look forward to better quality, and longer, lives.

Innovation in the health sector has been central to achieving these gains. For more than a century, public health interventions – from immunizations to tobacco control – have had a substantial impact on health. Add to that the benefits from effectively used new therapies that help us to get better more quickly when we fall ill, to live well with illness and disability and to have access to appropriate and compassionate care at the end of life.

That said, reducing waiting times, addressing shortages of health care providers, improving patient safety and helping seniors to stay healthy and active are complex undertakings. Our health system continues to face ongoing challenges. However, if I had to choose just one area to focus on, it would be using IT to improve health care because this innovation touches on all of these challenges and more. How do I know? As futurist William Gibson said, "the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed." We can see the promise through pockets of innovation happening right across the country.

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Take waiting times. Nine in 10 X-rays, CT scans, MRIs and other common images in public hospitals are now digital. Researchers estimate that resultant productivity improvements enable as many as 11 million more scans every year.

Access to care is also aided by telehealth, particularly in rural and remote communities. Telehealth leverages IT to deliver health services even if the patient and the clinician aren't in the same place. Across the country, use has risen 35 per cent annually in recent years. Studies show that telehealth saves patients time and money because they travel for care less often. It makes specialized services, such as emergency care after a stroke, possible for the first time in some parts of the country and has reduced waiting times for other services.

Health IT can also bring important quality benefits. For example, telemonitoring transmits vital signs and other valuable health information directly from a patient's home to the care team. A 2010 summary of more than 30 studies from Canada and elsewhere found that patients with congestive heart failure using this technology experienced lower costs, fewer hospitalizations and reduced mortality. Telehealth can also help decrease dependence on others, link family and other caregivers with the support they need, and even delay or altogether avoid the need to move into a long-term-care home.

Drug information systems, which allow authorized clinicians to securely view a patient's medications, offer another example. Used by one in three community pharmacists in Canada and half of hospital emergency rooms, these systems can help avoid harmful drug interactions and manage medications, improving the quality of care we receive. In a national survey, pharmacists reported spending less time cross-checking prescriptions and being better able to work with patients, ensuring medications are taken as prescribed. These and other innovations – such as quicker access to lab test results –mean clinicians can make more informed decisions and spend more time with patients rather than chasing paper.

So I firmly believe that health IT can be a powerful enabler of better health and health care. But success is not guaranteed. If it was as simple as buying computers for clinics and hospitals, it would be done already. The reality is that we're talking about new technologies, new skills, new ways of working and a new culture in a country with hundreds of thousands of different points of care. Progress requires the support of Canadians, the commitment of the clinicians who care for them, and the creativity and will to make change happen. We cannot get there in one step, but as a country we must – and will – push ahead.

Richard Alvarez will take questions in a live chat Thursday Nov. 17 at 1 p.m. ET: Will technology save our ailing health-care system?

Mr. Alvarez is president and CEO of Canada Health Infoway.

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