Industry engages health care

Hospitals, health clinics and doctors’ offices face a vast array of information technology tools that could improve the delivery of medical services. Making the right hardware and software choices are critical to gain the maximum benefit from electronic health records and hospital information network, and ensure that systems are working together.

The Information Technology Association of Canada has launched an ongoing “structured dialogue” between the Ontario government and IT industry, to bridge the gap between health care professionals and IT suppliers to better understand each other’s needs and capabilities.

Bernard Courtois, president and CEO of ITAC, said his organization, acting at the request of the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, will serve as facilitator in a series of discussions and workshops that will bring together IT suppliers, ministry officials and health care providers.

The series kicked off last month in Toronto, where Gail Paech, assistant deputy health minister and lead for the eHealth Program, outlined the direction of the provincial program to employ IT to improve health care.

That session will be followed by small gatherings and larger conferences to be held on a regular basis to get all the parties connected and talking, Courtois explained in an interview.

“We want to keep the dialogue going; we need a whole series of consultations,” he said.

A session on the human resource challenges facing the health sector will be held this month, he said. Future gatherings are still being arranged.

“Many of them will be on more focused topics after we have been able to identify all the areas of concern,” Courtois said.

David Jensen, a spokesman for the Health Ministry, said the government sees the consultation process as an opportunity “to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the industry on ICT issues as the ministry moves forward with its e-health agenda.”

The Ministry saw the event as an opportunity to provide “a status report” on the activities to date with respect to e-Health. “A more informative consultation session will be held later on when there is more specific information and direction available from the government,” Jensen said.

ITAC plans a parallel dialogue with the Smart Systems for Health Agency (SSHA), Courtois said. It will bring the provincial medical and hospital associations into the discussions.

Courtois describes ITAC’s role as “a neutral facilitator” in the dialogue, admitting it won’t be a simple task to get IT suppliers to talk about the technology in a generic sense, given the competitive nature of the industry, but “it should be useful for them to see where the ministry is headed.”

He is confident the vendors can remove their corporate hat to speak to the potential of IT to transform the delivery of health services.

In addition to human resources, the Health Ministry has identified two other priority subjects for ITAC to tackle, Courtois said.

They involve ensuring interoperability of IT systems in hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices, and in keeping the health care sector cognizant of new products and developments in the IT industry.

“If hospitals and others are going to make sensible choices in technology, they should know more about the kind of innovations that are coming at them,” Courtois noted.

The goal of government, providers and suppliers must be to modernize the health care system, he said, adding that the IT industry has vast knowledge about what is being done or tested in other jurisdictions that will benefit the development of e-health in Ontario.

When it comes to the SSHA, Courtois said suppliers want more insight into the kinds of standards they will be expected to meet. “We know they want to make sure everything connects and can access their databases. The agency is especially concerned about the interface between technology and the users.”

The IT community welcomes statements from agency officials that it wants to make use of existing technologies “rather than getting into reinventing the wheel,” he added.

Keeping pace with advancements in IT is always a challenge for anyone who uses the technology, but the ITAC initiative could go a long way toward helping the health care sector get the most from the technology. It should also enable the industry to fully understand what the health sector needs.

(Alex Binkley is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. He can be reached

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