Report guided by Queen’s researchers recommends shift towards digital healthcare

Jane Philpott sits down with The Journal to discuss digital care

The report discussed the role of private partners in healthcare.

Queen’s played a major role in the development of national health policy recommendations by guiding a report released on Aug. 25.

Titled Canadian Health Care’s Digital Future, the report summarizes two roundtable discussions of healthcare experts and stakeholders convened by Public Policy Forum, a non-profit Canadian think tank, in partnership with Queen’s and Johnson & Johnson. Queen’s researchers were members of the roundtable and the Faculty of Health Sciences helped facilitate it.

The report highlights key recommendations for the future of Canada’s healthcare system which, roundtable members argue, lies in the digital realm.

This guidance comes as the country’s healthcare system continues to grapple with unprecedented staffing shortages that have fueled emergency department closures across Canada.

Jane Philpott, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and roundtable member, said the report is intended to identify challenges in health systems exacerbated by challenges in digital health, and to put recommendations forward to decision makers.

“Lack of a digital health system leads to inefficiencies and frustrations for patients, and minimizes our opportunity to provide seamless care,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

The report says the creation of an interoperable health data system is a top priority for digitalization, citing the fragmented structure of the Canadian healthcare system as the root cause of the country’s inefficiency problem.

Such a system would require health data sharing between all levels of government, in addition to collaboration between private and public sectors—an opportunity currently underutilized due to mutual mistrust and negative past experiences, the report claims.

While the privatization of healthcare remains a source of contention among Canadians, Philpott believes there will always be a role for private partners in care delivery without compromising the accessibility of health services.

“We must recognize that this will require everybody coming to the table to work together,” Philpott said. “We must uphold the core principles of how healthcare is delivered in Canada, which includes making sure people have access to care based on their medical need and not their ability to pay.”

The report identifies six systemic challenges as burdening the Canadian healthcare system, including the marginalization of Indigenous and other remote communities.

Philpott believes the solution lies in recognizing the self-determination of Indigenous peoples by implementing Indigenous-led care delivery, citing British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority as an example.

“Queen’s University has an opportunity to implement some of [the report’s] recommendations through strong partnerships with Indigenous communities on the James Bay coast,” she said in reference to the Queen’s Weeneebayko Program, which works to expand access to healthcare for Indigenous peoples in the James Bay area.

In order for the program to be effective, she said, it must be conducted in a way that respects the authority and self-determination of Indigenous peoples.

The report claims an integrated digital health system has the potential to address systemic inequities by increasing access to care and providing it in a personalized and culturally-sensitive manner.

While interjurisdictional collaboration, private and public sector partnerships, and appropriate funding will allow for the development of such a system, the report argues it is ultimately a cultural shift in people’s expectations of government that will allow Canada to “become digital.”

COVID-19 accelerated this process, as it made real-time data indispensable and established the government as a trusted source of information, the report adds.

In the late stages of the pandemic, maintaining this momentum is instrumental to ensure such conversations do not remain theoretical.

“Digital health is not the future of health care; it is already here,” the report stated. “The issue is how best to harness it.”

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