We can make Ontario health care smarter
By Alanna Sokic, CCI’s Ontario Manager of Government Relations
As the Ontario election campaign enters the final week, it’s disappointing that we haven’t heard a better public debate about health care innovation.
Sure, all political parties have things to say about health care more broadly, but much of it amounts to building new hospitals or expanding services for citizens. In sheer dollars spent, health care makes up around 37% of the provincial budget expenses each year.
And of course, we are just coming out of a two-year nightmare with the COVID-19 pandemic, where the Ontario health care system was at serious risk of being overwhelmed.
This time last year, CCI was talking about the need for digital vaccine passports. It took months before we ultimately got a PDF file downloaded from a website. And then we had to wait some more before the province was able to deploy QR codes.
The pandemic revealed how fragile our health care system can be in a crisis, but it has also underlined the enormous potential for digital infrastructure to improve the system.
From hospitalization rates and wastewater monitoring, right down to the result of a rapid test on your kitchen table, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to confront the ways data can help us make smarter decisions and manage our health more effectively.
We’ve also embraced technology to deliver health care more efficiently, with huge numbers of Ontarians consulting a doctor over the phone or taking a therapy appointment via Zoom.
But the truth is that these systems were spun up amid crisis, and we should be able to do a lot better if we roll up our sleeves and build stronger, more resilient systems.
For example, while you may be able to download your lab results from a website or consult with a medical practitioner, these systems tend to operate independently from one another. If the provincial government intends to establish clear data standards for patient information, that would be a major step forward to ensuring that different systems could talk to each other.
Similarly, if the government developed digital ID and patient access system so that all patient data could be accessible and sharable by any Ontario citizen, our patchwork system could, over time, start to look more like a series of systems that all speak the same language and are linked meaningfully at a patient level.
There are actually Ontario companies working on exactly these kinds of systems that are embracing digitally-enabled health records and secure connectivity.
None of this is to trivialize the amount of work involved. There’s a reason why politicians haven’t already rolled out digital solutions. New technology inevitably comes with problems that need to be ironed out, and there will be disagreements about how data is collected, secured, and used. This is hard stuff.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the province started building the Ontario Health Data Platform, a central repository initially for COVID-19 data. Ultimately, it is on its way to becoming a broader hub for Ontarians’ health data.
Ontario is a province of more than 14 million people under a single public health system. A centralized repository of medical records in a large, diverse population could present a golden opportunity for researchers and innovators to develop services and research.
Natalie Raffoul, an intellectual property lawyer who sits on the Ontario Health Data Council, noted part of the challenge is developing policy for this nascent health data platform in a way that ensures Ontarians benefit from innovations and research.
This isn’t about monetizing Ontario’s health data. It’s about ensuring that Ontario innovators aren’t boxed out by foreign multinationals who will try to mine our data and commercialize the corresponding insights.
Put plainly, Raffoul told me, “Ontarians are not interested in selling our health data and becoming health data cows.”
Instead, we should be creating policy in a way that guarantees a rich ecosystem of homegrown innovators. How to develop these kinds of policies is exactly the sort of political, economic and social vision that we should hope to see from our leaders.
If Ontario doesn’t tackle these hard problems and embrace these technologies, we will be playing catch-up. Or worse, we will wind up paying more to buy technology and services from the nations that realized their potential.
Now is the time when we should be talking about how to leverage our innovators to create a more efficient and effective health system. We haven’t heard much talk about this during the election campaign, but it’s not too late. After June 2, we will have a government with a new mandate. There are lots of innovative Ontario companies ready to roll up their sleeves and start working on this. Let’s push Queen’s Park to do the same.
If you’re interested in learning more about CCI’s public policy work in Ontario, get in touch with Alanna Sokic directly.