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opinion

Harsh Nayyar and Rishi Nayyar are co-founders of Toronto technology startup PocketHealth, a secure platform for sharing medical images and health records.

The recent attempts to provide Canadians with a simple, secure and easily shareable digital vaccine passport have brought to the forefront a challenge our health care system has been grappling with for decades: the development of an effective, comprehensive digital health record.

In theory, a digital health record enables every person to access, review and share their entire medical history instantaneously – including reports, medical imaging, test results and, yes, vaccination records. Patients have full control over their own data, ensuring the right information gets to the right lab, clinic, or doctor at the right time. The benefits of such a system – from efficiencies and cost reductions to fewer errors and, ultimately, better patient care – have been validated in countless medical studies.

Yet despite many well-intentioned efforts of health care providers and policymakers, and billions of dollars in government funding, we remain far away from realizing that vision. At a time when wearable devices can instantly tell you your resting heart rate or your step count – and when you can send and receive reams of data from one end of the world to the other – your most critical health information continues to be transmitted via fax, burned onto a CD-ROM to be physically shipped between providers, or in the case of your vaccination record, written down on a rumpled yellow card you hope never to lose.

The reason our medical system continues to rely on these outdated modes of communication isn’t because there hasn’t been great investment in a host of enterprise-grade software and hardware solutions. Indeed, significant funding went into digitizing patient records trapped within filing cabinets inside doctor’s offices and hospitals. Instead, it’s because these technology solutions don’t communicate very well with one another, meaning all of those digitized records can’t easily be compiled or shared between medical experts and institutions. Equally problematic is that the data is sometimes incomplete, obsolete, or not easily retrievable, with relevant historical information often missing or unavailable. This is something we’ve seen firsthand at PocketHealth while working with hospitals and health care providers to enable a patient-driven approach to accessing and sharing digital health records. These challenges explain why, in the depths of a global pandemic, Canada’s health care systems are struggling to provide a simple and secure solution to accessing and sharing our COVID-19 vaccination status.

Prior to the pandemic, many Canadians didn’t understand the value in accessing and controlling their health records. Unless they or someone they were caring for was chronically ill, the vast majority were often content to trust that the information in their records was accurate, and that relevant records would make it where they needed to go. In an age where technology allows instant monitoring of everything from the delivery time for our pizza order to the status of our retirement investments, we rarely exhibit that same involvement with critical records related to our own health.

The costs of our government-funded health care system have become harder to sustain, and a significant portion of that cost continues to be devoted to securing patient data and records. A more efficient system would reduce data storage costs, meaning some money in those budgets could be redeployed to clinical care. And by empowering those among us who have the capability to control their own data and drive their own care, we would then be able to allocate more resources to the most vulnerable populations who require more personalized attention and support.

COVID-19 vaccine mandates have raised awareness of the importance of having one small part of our health records instantly accessible, but there exists a much greater opportunity for Canadians to be more participative in our own health care. The more ownership and control we have over our own medical records, the more informed and active we can be in managing our own health.

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