Innovators love disruption, and the past three years of the pandemic have been nothing if not disruptive.

They’ve also been a wakeup call for the health-care system, letting key players know that the old way of doing things is no longer enough.

That was a big takeaway from Forging Ahead: Leveraging Tech to Revolutionize Health Care in Canada, a virtual event hosted by Communitech to wrap up a year-long Future of Health collaboration that explored how technological innovation could meet the many challenges facing the health sector. 

Speakers and panelists discussed a variety of hot topics, from data acquisition to privacy protections, machine learning, shared best practices, empathy and procurement. About 80 people watched the virtual event from the Communitech Hub during a networking and “viewing party," while 263 more tuned in from across Canada and from international locales such as Las Vegas and São Paulo, Brazil.

Whether the speakers represented tech companies, hospitals, non-profits or advisory agencies, the themes were similar: the health sector needs to be more agile; private-sector approaches can help public-sector agencies; inclusive answers have to involve all sizes of communities; and data needs to be shared widely.  

Reg Joseph, CEO of the Edmonton-based non-profit Health Cities, opened the session by noting that, in the past, it has taken up to 17 years for health-sector innovations to be widely accepted and disseminated into clinical practice. 

Procurement has to be expedited, he said. One obstacle to speedy procurement is that the medical community is notoriously set in its ways.

“We still fax!” Joseph said.

He urged health-care professionals and politicians to learn new models and new ways of thinking from other sectors of the economy.

The event's first panel touched on the struggles facing health-care delivery in Canada, the second largest country in the world by geography.

Alexandra Greenhill, founder, CEO and Chief Medical Officer of Vancouver’s Careteam Technologies Inc., noted that many well-intentioned companies don’t understand the realities of this vast country, with solutions that work for Toronto not necessarily working for remote areas or First Nations communities.

Dr. Kate Mulligan, Senior Director of the Canadian Institute for Social Prescribing, made a similar point. She suggested that not all tools work on “non-white bodies” or “non-male bodies.” Entrepreneurs need to listen to – and tap into – the pool of patients and consumers who have both knowledge and interest in health care.

Greenhill said that some tech innovators who have been surprised by the lack of uptake of their products by clinicians may not understand the “deep disappointment” that medical professionals have had in the past with tools that over-promised and simply added to their workload. 

“Don’t make doctors try to figure out how to use it,” she said. “Make it easier to adopt.… Don’t add 17 clicks to their day.” 

Shannon MacDonald, Partner and Health Lead at Ernst & Young LLP, echoed that sentiment, noting that “change is hard on people.” 

She said the people involved in health care are key, and that health-tech entrepreneurs have to understand that they are working for the public.

“Health is not a commercial business,” MacDonald said.

Greenhill agreed, advising that “if you want to get rich in tech, don’t go into health tech.” 

Dr. Alika Lafontaine, President of the Canadian Medical Association, urged the audience to break the rules, saying that many in health care are trapped by “sets of rules that we think we can’t break.” 

Ask yourself if this “rule” is truly unbreakable, he said. And when you break a rule, “pick a rule that breaks everything.” He cited recent changes in Atlantic Canada regarding the licensure of medical professionals that have the potential to spread across the country. 

MacDonald added that smaller provinces benefit the most from breaking out of the health-care silos that provincial jurisdictions have created. 

Panel leader Dr. Dominik Nowak, Family Physician and Health Leader at the University of Toronto, asked the panellists for one big idea each. Here’s what they offered:

  • Invest in community health.
  • Close the gap between what is possible and what actually happens.
  • Break a rule.
  • Share data across provinces.

In a virtual “fireside chat,” University of Waterloo President Vivek Goel – a public health researcher and former Chair of the pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy Expert Advisory Group – spoke with Globe and Mail health reporter Carly Weeks.

The danger of not sharing data was one of the pandemic’s greatest reveals, he said.

Canada didn’t have the data it needed to manage the pandemic response, largely due to the fragmented nature of health jurisdictions in Canada, he said. Data was not collected consistently across the provinces, he added, citing the example of places that serve food, which are called restaurants in some areas and food-services establishments in others. The data was not comparable between jurisdictions because the definitions varied. 

Goel suggested that the system over-emphasizes privacy and protection, but hinders other uses of public data. He said that rather than being custodians of data, governments need to see themselves as stewards of data who should use it in responsible ways. 

That requires public engagement and public trust in the data handlers. Goel said that the public needs to be educated about the safe uses of aggregated, anonymized data.

When Weeks suggested that Canadians are concerned about private involvement in health-care data, Goel said that we need to “stop saying private sector bad; public sector good.” 

Once the challenges of procurement are overcome – “We procure innovations in the health system the same way we procure fighter jets,” said Goel – there are tremendous opportunities for health-sector transformation. These include keeping people in their homes or supporting them to receive health care as close to home as possible, and making routine tasks less demanding, which will allow more time for interactions with patients.

The afternoon panel ranged widely, from tech that can read a patient’s mood to allow a medical professional to more accurately assess their condition, to care teams that can follow their patients across the country, to how “data shame” (the reluctance to share incomplete or incompatible datasets) can be a hurdle for silo-dismantling.

Danielle Braun Carlin, Manager of the Future of Health for Communitech, capped the session by reviewing the workdone by the Future of Health 2022 collaborative.

The group, she said, identified four major themes as cited by health-care stakeholders: systems design, interoperability, equity and prevention. It held a nationwide call for solutions that attracted 163 submissions from 88 companies. And it completed an adjudication process that identified the top 10 Canadian innovative companies chosen to move forward in the program and be connected with health-care organizations across the country. 

Although the Future of Health 2022 collaborative has wrapped up, Braun Carlin said a similar initiative will launch again in May, with opportunities for partners, sponsors, participants, innovators and health-care providers to get involved.

As a champion of “tech for good,” Communitech has been actively involved in connecting health-care professionals and policymakers with tech innovators to help improve health care for all Canadians.