Using data and digital tools to rethink healthcare

As we enter our third full year of living and working during a global pandemic, it is clear that we are at a critical moment in Canadian history – a moment that has shattered the illusion that “the digital economy is somehow distinct or different from “economics.” “He also laid bare critical loopholes and loopholes in our health care systems. But there is light on the horizon.

We can take full advantage of digital tools and the power of data to drive economic recovery and accelerate the critical transformation of our health systems.

We’ve made incredible progress during the pandemic, solving seemingly intractable problems overnight. Consider the decades-long debate over virtual care, with physicians and ministries of health grappling with regulatory, policy and billing frameworks. Those barriers disappeared in 2020 as we found the collective motivation to change the way we think.

While we’ve made progress, we still have a lot to learn about using data and digital tools to deliver services that put patients and families first. These tools can improve clinical services and enable faster and easier data collection for health system management, population health, research and innovation, while protecting privacy.

A consistent system for understanding population-level data would help us make better decisions. The lack of policy coordination and governance system across federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions is one of the reasons Canada has not launched a robust contact tracing app. This is why we have several models for the distribution of vaccines in a country of 38 million inhabitants. The first step towards democratizing healthcare is to make data interoperable.

the TRUSTSPHERE project is a model of what can be achieved by adopting open standards and a cooperative governance model. TRUSTSPHERE allows users to easily and securely share confidential information through online healthcare services, in accordance with the highest standards of privacy protection.

Through our work with the Pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy and the Expert Advisory Group on COVID-19 Screening and Testing, we have seen the promise of data and digital tools to help Canada address big problems. As we anticipate the transition of COVID-19 from a pandemic to an endemic state, it is essential that we do not simply go back to “the way things were before”.

Leaders in healthcare must respect the growing data literacy and digital expertise of Canadians, and improve our systems to meet their expectations. Canadians know how to use digital tools to manage other facets of their lives: finances, education, social activities and leisure. Increasingly, Canadians expect to be able to manage their personal health using digital tools, like wearable fitness trackers and other healthcare apps. It’s time for our health care system to catch up with the people it serves.

In 2020, virtual care saved patients 90 million travel hours and over $6.1 billion in avoided expenses. Additionally, 91% of virtual care patients were satisfied with their experience during the pandemic. Whether or not they used virtual care during the pandemic, 76% of respondents expressed a willingness to use it in the future. That’s an increase from 64% in a pre-COVID survey.

Data and digital tools have the ability to solve long-standing health issues. They can ease the pressure on institutions and front-line care providers and help individuals optimize their health.

Consider the many communities and hospitals facing staffing shortages. By making smarter and better use of technologies such as remote monitoring, signaling and AI, we could create new capabilities. If four-person teams were reconfigured into three-person teams supported by digital tools, the same 12 people would have 25% more capacity.

By reframing the way we think, we can transform our systems and make them sustainable. Deploying digital tools requires data to operate, which means we need to think about our privacy, data governance and accountability systems. These are significant challenges that can and must be overcome.

Canadians have seen how data and digital tools can strengthen person-centred health care. The next mission is to accelerate their use to build the healthcare system of the future. By doing so, we will contribute to a healthier Canada and a sustained economic recovery.

Sue Paish is CEO of the Digital Technology Supercluster and Co-Chair of the Federal COVID-19 Testing and Tracing Expert Advisory Committee. Vivek Goel is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Waterloo and Chair of the Advisory Committee of experts on the pan-Canadian health data strategy Grouper.

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