Canada-wide EHR critical, say experts

Health care experts agree: Canada-wide electronic health records (EHR) are critical to improving health care, and a recent conference in Quebec may have brought senior policy makers onside.

Organized by Canada Health Infoway and the Health Council of Canada, the policy conference on accelerating EHRs in Canada was held in Montebello, Quebec and hosted industry experts from Denmark, New Zealand, the US and the UK.

Steven Lewis, councillor, Health Council of Canada , was impressed by several presentations at the conference.

“It was very compelling to hear a practicing physician from Edmonton talk about how access to even a partial EHR concretely helps him make better decisions for his patients,” said Lewis. “It was encouraging to learn that implementing the EHR in Denmark saved doctors nearly an hour a day previously spent in chasing down information from hospitals, and it reduced medication errors.”

As for why Canada does not yet have a nation-wide EHR in place, Lewis said there are several reasons, one being federalism.

“Health care is mainly a provincial-territorial responsibility, and putting in place a Canada-wide anything, let alone an innovation such as the EHR, is difficult,” he said. “The scale of investment to date is not sufficient.

“We’re trying to do with a couple of billion dollars what will more likely take five to 10 times that much.”

Health care is still dominated by people from the baby boom generation, and information technology is a somewhat alien concept, according to Lewis.

“The quality improvement movement is just gathering speed in Canada, which means that one of the great drivers of the IT revolution elsewhere — the need for real-time clinical and evaluative data — has not been all that prominent as yet,” said Lewis.

Richard Alvarez, president and CEO, Canada Health Infoway , said there were senior level policy makers in attendance including deputy ministers, regional CEOs, and VPs of hospitals.

Of those, there was a balance between “the converted,” people who had prior exposure to EHRs, and those who had no exposure and “needed to be convinced,” said Alvarez.

“My general sense is they went away convinced as they heard from other nations, including Canada in terms of those who are using and benefiting from EHRs,” he said.

And the need for EHRs is something that is also being recognized by the Canadian government.

Alvarez noted that the week following the conference, provincial and territorial Ministers of Health met in Fredericton where they discussed the importance of EHRs in advancing the National Pharmaceuticals Strategy and other areas of health care reform.

“That was unanimous from the Ministers,” he said. “You can’t get too much higher level than them.”

Currently, Infoway is working with a group of outside experts on developing a plan to extend EHRs to all Canadians, said Alvarez.

“It could be possible to make this happen in Canada by 2015,” he said. “We’re starting to see now that this is becoming a front burner issue and not a back burner issue like it was maybe two or three years ago.”

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